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Iran Downplays 'Openness' In Nuclear Talks

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, also met privately with U.S. officials in Geneva.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, also met privately with U.S. officials in Geneva.
Western officials have welcomed Tehran's positive approach and conciliatory tone during "P5+1" talks last week, characterized by the head of the UN's nuclear agency as a step toward more openness on the part of Iran regarding its controversial nuclear program.

But at home, Iranian officials have given a starkly different assessment, portraying the talks as a victory for Iran and recognition of its right to pursue peaceful nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told reporters on October 5 that Tehran made no retreat from its previous stances during the October 1 talks with representatives of the five permanent UN Security Council members (United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia) plus Germany.

Iran's hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had said on a number of occasions in the past that he considers Iran's nuclear case closed, and that Iran's right to nuclear energy is not negotiable.

However, Muhammad el-Baradei, head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on October 4 described a shift on the part of Iran "from confrontation into transparency and cooperation."

Following the talks, Western diplomats had announced that Iran was ready to send most of its enriched uranium outside Iran to be turned into fuel for civilian purposes.

Iran also agreed to open its newly disclosed uranium-enrichment plant near Qom for inspection. El-Baradei announced that the visit by IAEA inspectors would take place on October 25.

Qashqavi followed by claiming on October 5 that the Geneva talks did not focus on the Iranian nuclear issue. He told reporters that the meeting dealt with Tehran's proposal regarding general global issues.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi denied Iran backed down.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman said that agreements reached on inspecting the enrichment plant near Qom and an October 19 meeting on the exchange of enriched uranium were coordinated with the IAEA.

This would be in keeping with Tehran's insistence ahead of the Geneva talks that the UN nuclear body would be the only forum under which the nuclear issue could be discussed.

For Domestic Consumption

Independent Tehran-based regional expert Hassan Fathi says that the comments by Qashqavi and other Iranian officials regarding the Geneva talks should be seen in the context of the postelection crisis.

Some four months after the June 12 presidential vote, many Iranians still refuse to recognize Ahmadinejad as the country's president, and a rift within the establishment appears to have widened.

Fathi suggests that, by projecting the image that it is negotiating with the West from a position of strength, the Iranian government is trying to legitimize Ahmadinejad's presidency and silence those who question his reelection.

"This is all propaganda so that [the authorities] silence the dissenting voices inside the country," Fathi says.

The semi-official Fars news agency, seen as a mouthpiece for Ahmadinejad's government, in a recent commentary portrayed the Geneva talks as a new opportunity for the United States and the West to take a new look at the security situation and developments in the region, and in the world as a whole.

Fars described Iran as the leader of "the peaceful nuclear-awakening movement" in the region, adding that the results of the talks are dependent on confidence-building steps by the P5+1 countries.

"Kayhan" noted that Western countries say they're interested in talks with Iran. But the hard-line daily added that that sentence should be corrected to say that "the West is forced to talk to Iran," because all efforts to stop Iran have brought no result.

Iran has said that it was entering the talks with the United States and other major powers with a positive approach and a mind-set of goodwill.

Fighting To Survive

Analyst Fathi believes Tehran is playing for time, while also suggesting that President Ahmadinejad is very keen to reach a deal with Washington.

"They would very much like to reach an agreement with the Obama administration so that they have a freer hand for continuing their domestic crackdown," Fathi says.

"If they felt that a deal with the U.S. was possible, then they would be willing to make some concessions."

He adds that for the Iranian establishment survival is more important than anything else.

Analysts believe the agreement on the exchange of enriched uranium, if implemented, would be a significant concession by Iran.

Ray Takeyh, a former Iran adviser to the Obama administration, was quoted by "The New York Times" as saying that if an arrangement is established whereby Iran's fuel is exported abroad, then "that relieves some degree of your proliferation concern."

A commentary published on the website "Mojwcamp," which covers developments regarding Iran's opposition Green movement, said that the official response to the Geneva talks demonstrates that "lying" is ingrained within the Iranian establishment. "Mojwcamp" said that the transfer of enriched uranium would constitute a major retreat by Iran.

On the sidelines of the Geneva talks, the U.S. and Iranian representatives held separate bilateral talks during a break. A U.S. official who attended the talks described the meeting between U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Said Jalili as significant.

'Problematic' Iran

Ahead of the talks, a group of Iranian scholars, researchers, and doctoral students based outside the country said in an open letter that any constructive dialogue with Iran must address the Iranian regime's "harsh repression" of peaceful protesters.

Kazem Alamdari, a professor at California State University and one of the signatories of the letter, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the United States should not turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Iran.

"The Islamic republic is problematic with or without its uranium-enrichment program. The Islamic republic will remain problematic as long as it doesn't respect the rights of its people and democracy and as long as it violates human rights," Alamdari says.

Radio Farda broadcaster Fereydoun Zarnegar contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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