Iran Update 165

  • Next E3+3 talks finally scheduled; Iran-U.S. bi-lateral talks a possibility
  • Another round of IAEA talks conclude without progress; next meeting scheduled for mid-February
  • Iran’s nuclear program prominent subject for Obama’s nominees at confirmation hearings
  • Netanyahu reiterates importance of avoiding a nuclear Iran
  • Unfounded rumours of explosion at Fordow
  • Iran claims to have successfully launched rocket carrying monkey

Next P5+1 talks finally scheduled; Iran-U.S. bi-lateral talks possibility

Iran and the P5+1/E3+3: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany, have finally agreed to meet, on February 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. This announcement comes after a long period of gridlock between both delegations since June when they last met. The U.S. presidential elections and changes in the Administration, frustration over meeting terms and the Iranian lack of confidence in the flexibility of the E3+3 have all been offered as reasons for the long delay.

Many in the Iranian leadership do not believe that their negotiating partners have the mandate to offer anything new, and have no intention of giving sanctions relief anytime soon. Whereas some, including current and former parliamentarians, are hoping for a diplomatic resolution as the country increasingly suffers from the weight of intensifying sanctions, others do not want Iran to bow to foreign pressure. The Supreme Leader and regular political opponents will not want to hand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad any possible credit for starting serious talks just before he leaves office. This speculation is unclear, however, as the President is already out of favor and uninvolved in the talks today.

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden made headlines for the Munich Security Conference on February 2nd, saying the Obama Administration would be willing to engage in high-level, direct, bi-lateral talks with Iran on the nuclear program when the Supreme Leader is “serious”. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who was also at the Conference, said that Iran would welcome the opportunity in theory, but pointed to the long-standing lack of trust between the two countries and said it would be imperative that both sides approach such a meeting “on an equal footing”. Optimism is high that the E3+3+Iran meeting in Kazakhstan will endorse bilaterals to be held afterwards between Iran and the United States.

The United States has made it clear that Iran must follow U.N. Security Council Resolutions and prove that its program will not be used for weapons development, while Iran insists that it would not accept the "less rights and more obligations" model - saying that it is guaranteed these rights as both a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Former Iranian negotiator Hossein Mousavian from Princeton, addressing a meeting at Chatham House on Monday, said that Iran may be willing to negotiate on significant restrictions to its program to demonstrate good faith, including implementation of the additional protocol, code 3.1, capping enrichment at 5%, limits to the stockpile, and addressing concerns over possible military dimensions. In return it is looking for sanctions relief, recognition of its rights and normalisation of nuclear trade. Since the last round of talks that ended in deadlock, the P5+1 are reported to have slightly reworked their proposal, though the details remain unclear. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the E3+3 will bring an "updated and credible offer" to the meeting.

 

Another round of IAEA talks conclude without progress; next meeting scheduled for mid-February

January 16th saw the start of a new round of talks between the IAEA and Iranian officials in Tehran. It was reported that the main purpose of the meeting for the IAEA was to gain access to the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran due to speculation that it has, in the past, been used to facilitate explosives tests relevant for nuclear weapons development. Following two days of “intensive” talks, Herman Nackaerts, deputy head of the IAEA said that the talks ended without his team gaining permission to inspect the site and that they "could not finalise the structured approach to resolve the outstanding issues regarding possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme", though it is believed the two sides may yet be close to agreement. Iran and the Agency have agreed to meet again on February 13th.

 

Iran says it will install advanced centrifuges

Iranians reportedly sent a letter to the IAEA on January 23rd outlining a plan to install up to 3,000 more advanced centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. These centrifuges, called IR-2m, have the capacity to function at least two times faster than the centrifuges currently in use in Iran, the IR-1, and could shorten the time needed to further enrich uranium to bomb-grade level. White House spokesman Jay Carney, said that it would "mark yet another provocative step by Iran and will only invite further isolation by the international community".

 

Iran’s nuclear program prominent subject for Obama’s nominees at confirmation hearings

Iran was frequently the subject of heated questioning during the confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense last week. Some Republican and Democrat Senators expressed worries about Hagel’s past statements and positions on Iran during the hearing, suggesting that he would be too lenient and not take sufficient measures to protect Israel. The former Republican Senator from Nebraska said, “I am fully committed to the president's goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have been on record on that issue and as I said in the past many times, all options must be on the table to achieve that goal. My policy has always been the same as the president's, one of prevention, not of containment.”  Hagel’s nomination must still come up for a vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee, where it then must pass before moving to the full Senate floor for a final vote. 

The new U.S. Secretary of State, former Democrat Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, had said during his nomination hearing on January 24: “Given our extraordinary interests in non-proliferation, we must resolve the questions surrounding Iran's nuclear program. The president has made it definitive. We will do what we must do to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and I repeat here today, our policy is not containment. It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”

 

Netanyahu reiterates importance of avoiding a nuclear Iran

Speaking two days before the Israeli elections took place, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his concern over the Iran nuclear program and asserted that inhibiting the program would be his priority if he won the elections. Addressing a group of visiting U.S. senators, he proclaimed; “History will not forgive those who do not stop Iran’s nuclear program,” additionally noting that it remains “the main mission facing not only myself and Israel, but the entire world.”

This stance on the Iranian nuclear program was a main pillar of Netanyahu’s election campaign while other parties instead focused their attention on socio-economic issues within Israel.

As early polls suggested, Netanyahu once again claimed victory, however his bloc did lose seats to the center party with most voters concentrating on domestic, rather than geopolitical issues. It is unlikely that the Israeli position regarding Iran will change, though the priority given may not be as strong as it would have been.

Within a week of Netenyahu’s re-election, a McClatchy News article cited Israeli intelligence officers claiming a “deliberate slowing” of the Iranian nuclear program, the date by which a bomb may be produced has been significantly pushed back from the middle of this year to 2015, or even to the winter of 2016. There were also claims of a big gap between Netenyahu’s speeches and what he is told in briefings on the Iranian situation.

Speaking from the World Economic Forum annual meeting a few days later, outgoing Defence Minister Ehud Barak noted that sanctions against Iran were ineffective in their current form. On the mention of war, Barak dismissed the binary between a nuclear Iran and war, saying that an attack on Iranian enrichment facilities could be a “surgical operation” targeting very precise areas.

 

Unfounded rumors of explosion at Fordow

On January 24th, a report written by Mohammad Rez Kahlili was published on WND.com under the headline Sabotage! Key Iranian Nuclear Facility Hit?. The report outlined how, on January 21st, on the eve of the Israeli elections, there was a large explosion at the Fordow nuclear enrichment plant in Iran that trapped 240 employees inside. According to the report, Tehran was holding Israel responsible for that attack.

While the report remained uncorroborated except for articles appearing in The Times and Die Welt, in a phone interview with Haaretz, Kahlili insisted that his information was garnered from members of the Revolutionary Guard, government officials and people within Khamenei’s office. Iranian officials have vehemently denied these allegations calling them “Western propaganda” designed to derail nuclear talks.

Israel’s biggest daily selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, made this its lead story days after the allegations were made. Responding to the story, Israel’s Home Front Defence Minister Avi Ditcher said that “any explosion in Iran that doesn’t hurt its people but hurts its assets, is welcome”.

Within days of the allegations, however, the IAEA made a rare statement on the issue suggesting that they had visited the site since the rumours had started and that no explosion had taken place. In addition, VERTIC, whilst monitoring seismic activity in the area, “found no indication” of any explosion.

 

Iran claims to have successfully launched rocket carrying monkey

Iran claimed on January 28th to have successfully launched a rocket carrying a monkey into space. Whether the monkey survived, and even the flight itself, have remained in question. Initially, word of the launch renewed concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program, and whether Iran is using such rocket launches as a cover to develop the technology for nuclear-tipped missiles. Iranian leaders have said they plan to send humans into space before the end of this decade.

 

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