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U.S. May Drop Key Condition For Iran Nuclear Talks

The uranium enrichment complex in Natanz. Iran has refused to give up its enrichment work, which has potential military applications.
During his election campaign, Barack Obama said he would talk to Iran "without preconditions." Now, according to "The New York Times," the U.S. president may be taking steps to fulfill that promise.

The daily reported on April 13 that proposals currently being reviewed by the United States and its European allies would allow Tehran to continue uranium enrichment for some period during the talks. Tehran would also be pressed to open up its nuclear facilities to wide-ranging inspections.

On April 3, the "Financial Times" reported that as part of a policy review commissioned by Washington, diplomats were discussing whether the United States would eventually have to cede to Iran's demand to continue with uranium enrichment.

The aim of the move would be to draw Iran into nuclear talks that have been deadlocked over Tehran's refusal to stop its uranium-enrichment activities.

The process of uranium enrichment, which can be used for the production of both nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons, lies at the heart of the controversy over Iran's nuclear program.

While Iran says that all its nuclear activities are peaceful, Western countries are worried that Tehran could divert the enrichment process for military use.

Iranian officials have described the enrichment program as a "red line" that cannot be crossed. In an April 10 interview with the German publication "Der Spiegel," Iran's hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad again dismissed demands to suspend the country's enrichment program, saying, "The time for this is over."

Iran Stands Firm

Some Iran experts have said that the demand for Iran to stop its enrichment program before joining nuclear talks is a non-starter. "The New York Times" quoted European officials as saying that there was "general agreement" that Iran would not accept the shutdown of its nuclear facilities, as the previous U.S. administration had demanded.

Shahram Chubin, director of research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, told Radio Farda in March that the United States may have also come to the conclusion that the chances of Iran rolling back its enrichment program are very slim. "But [the United States] will try, and hopefully prevent further enrichment -- especially enrichment beyond what's needed for a nuclear-power reactor," Chubin said.

Bruno Pellaud, a former official of the International Atomic Energy Agency, welcomed the proposals that are reportedly being discussed by the United States and EU countries.

"I'm glad about this,” Pellaud told Radio Farda. “As a former IAEA official and also as a researcher I have proposed this in my writings, including in research I did for the International Crisis Group (ICG). Many have realized over the years that it is not realistic to demand a complete halt of uranium enrichment. "

Pellaud says Iran should implement the additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty that allows the IAEA to conduct snap inspections of the country's nuclear facilities.

Nothing is definite yet, as the Obama administration is reportedly still debating its Iran policy. A senior administration official has told "The New York Times" that "suspension" remains the U.S. goal.

U.S. officials said last week that from now, Washington will join the so-called 5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear program as "a full participant." The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany said after a meeting on April 8 in London that the council would invite Iran to attend a new round of talks over its nuclear program.

Open To Dialogue

Iran said on April 13 it would welcome a "constructive dialogue" with the six world powers. State television quoted Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili as making the comment in a recent telephone conversation with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood welcomed the development. "I would refer you again to the sincere offer of the 5+1 to provide Iran with what we believe is a very good, substantive package of incentives,” Wood said. “We want to deal with Iran on this issue. It's an important issue to the international community. And Iran needs to show the international community that its nuclear program is a peaceful one. Right now, the international community is very skeptical about that."

No date has been set for the talks, but according to some reports, a meeting could take place within several weeks.

Former UN weapons inspector David Albright, who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, told RFE/RL that if Tehran were to maintain its stance regarding its enrichment program, the talks would fail.

"How these negotiations will come out is anyone's guess,” Albright said. “If Iran's view is 'we will never give up enrichment,' then the negotiations will clearly fail and we'll go back to a period where the United States will impose much greater sanctions on Iran. I think the international community is going to be less patient."

In a move underlining Iran's determination to press on with its nuclear program, President Ahmadinejad last week inaugurated the country's first nuclear fuel plant and said that his country had mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle. He also said that Iran is testing a new type of centrifuge with a much greater capacity than the previous ones.

Some analysts described the announcements as an Iranian rebuff to the recent U.S. overtures. But Albright believes the April 9 announcement by Iran was "recycled news" from last year and the previous year that should not hinder Obama's efforts to engage Iran.

Mohammad Reza Kazemi of RFE/RL's Radio Farda 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.