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Iran Nuclear Crisis: What's On The Table At The Baghdad Talks?

  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits one of his country's controversial uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, south of Iran. (file photo)

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits one of his country's controversial uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, south of Iran. (file photo)

World powers are meeting with Iran in Baghdad this week over the Islamic republic's controversial nuclear program. Here are five things to know ahead of time.

Who is meeting and why?

The five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China -- plus Germany (better known as the P5+1) are sitting down with Iran in the Iraqi capital on May 23 to discuss ways out of the Iran nuclear crisis. Western powers accuse Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program under the cover of its nuclear-energy activities. Iran denies the charges.

What's on the agenda?

The most urgent item on the agenda is to convince Iran to give nuclear inspectors access to the Parchin military site near Tehran. Concerns over Iran's nuclear intentions have increased since the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reported in November that Iran has carried out past activities "relevant to the development of an explosive nuclear device."

Western officials suspect Iran built a container at Parchin in 2000 for the probable testing of high explosives and want to know more about experiments there. They also accuse Iran of refusing to let UN inspectors inside Parchin until Tehran can remove incriminating evidence. Iran has dismissed the allegations as "ridiculous."

Overall, the UN Security Council is demanding that Iran suspend uranium enrichment and other activities they say could contribute to acquiring bomb-grade nuclear material until it proves its program is peaceful. Tehran says it has the right to enrich uranium as part of its nuclear energy program.

What expectations are there for the Baghdad meeting?

Expectations are guarded because the Baghdad meeting is only the second since the two sides began speaking again after a break-off of talks early last year. Nonetheless, U.S. officials say they were heartened that Tehran showed a new seriousness when they returned to the table in Istanbul in April and hope that this spirit will continue in Baghdad.

The wildcard is Iran's last-minute agreement with the IAEA to a probe of its alleged nuclear-weapons projects. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said on May 22 that a deal between Tehran and the IAEA would be signed soon and that Parchin would be part of the agreement.

The announcement heightens speculation that Tehran may call at the Baghdad meeting for the lifting of Western sanctions against the Islamic republic in exchange for letting international inspectors visit controversial sites. If so, that would set the stage for a showdown in Baghdad, where both sides would have to make major concessions to reach common ground.

Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, cautions against "unrealistically high expectations" for the meeting.

"It is unlikely that any of the parties' top-priority demands will be fulfilled anytime soon," he tells RFE/RL. "It is, however, imperative that the endgame be clear from the start. This should be the goal in Baghdad."

Has Iran given any indication that it will be flexible?

Iran has vowed that sanctions will not force it to give up any aspect of its nuclear program. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in February that "in response to threats of oil embargo and war, we have our own threats to impose at the right time."

This statement raised fears that Iran could try to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz to cut the West off from Persian Gulf oil if the nuclear crisis deepened.

But Iran's readiness to talk raises questions about whether it is really prepared to take an all-or-nothing stance.

"For them, the ideal situation would be not quite having a weapon and therefore not forcing anyone to act against them but to be close enough [to having one] to be taken seriously," says Shannon Kile from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden. "That's probably where they are today. Going beyond that situation, costs would probably outweigh the benefits."

How flexible is the West?

Western powers believe Tehran is more serious about talking now because of the tough financial sanctions they have levied upon the Islamic republic in recent months. They have also promised sanctions will tighten further if negotiations show no progress.

U.S. President Barack Obama said at the G8 meeting near Washington last weekend that he was "hopeful about the discussions that will be taking place in Baghdad."

"But all of us are firmly committed to continuing with the approach of sanctions and pressure in combination with diplomatic discussions," he added. "And our hope is that we can resolve this issue in a peaceful fashion."

Washington's sense of resolve on this issue was heightened on May 18 with the U.S. House of Representatives passing a nonbinding resolution stating Iran must be stopped before it achieves a "nuclear-weapons capability."

The resolution reaffirmed "opposition to any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."

Nonetheless, there are also reports that the White House might be willing to accept some level of enrichment activity from Iran as the price for ending the nuclear crisis.

"The New York Times" reports that officials from the United States and five other major powers are going into the Baghdad meeting prepared to offer inducements to obtain a verifiable agreement that Iran will suspend efforts to enrich uranium beyond the 20-percent level it has achieved.

Any agreement would have to include highly intrusive inspections and other guarantees that Iran's nuclear intentions are peaceful.

With additional reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari in Washington

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