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Iran update: number 133
April 16, 2009
- Iran looks ready to accept invitation from P5+1, remains adamant about its right to continue its nuclear program
- US announces that it will participate fully in P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran
- Presidential candidate in Iran suggests that he may support verification measures
- Officials from Obama administration reveal latest developments in Iran policy deliberations
- Iran plans to launch another, more sophisticated satellite
- Iran proclaims progress in its nuclear production capabilities, but analysts express skepticism
- Israeli PM refuses to rule out preemptive strike against Iran, but Obama administration warns against it
Last week the five members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany (the P5+1), announced that they would seek direct engagement with Iran to discuss its nuclear program. These talks will mark the first formal dialogue between Washington and Tehran on the nuclear program. "If Iran accepts, we hope this will be the occasion to seriously engage Iran on how to break the logjam of recent years and work in a cooperative manner to resolve the outstanding international concern about its nuclear program," US State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters after the announcement. In a telephone conversation on April 13, Iran's head nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, informed EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana that Iran would participate in these discussions. Later that week, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran is about to propose a package to bring to the negotiating table. An official acceptance is not expected for a few days, but Tehran gave a clear signal on April 15 that it would accept by welcoming a 'constructive' dialogue with the six. No date has been set for the first meeting.
Senior US diplomat Richard Holbrooke met briefly with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahdi Akhundzadeh on the sidelines of the international security conference on Afghanistan at The Hague in late March. According to Secretary Clinton, the nuclear issue was not discussed, but the meeting was cordial, and the two "agreed to keep in touch."
On the evening of the announcement by the P5+1, Ahmadinejad said that he was "ready to cooperate" on nuclear disarmament, provided that such efforts did not impede civilian nuclear technology programs. In the first session of Iran's Parliament in the Iranian New Year (which began on March 20) on April 12, parliamentary spokesman Ali Larijani expressed his willingness to support Iran's participation in such dialogue as long as deliberations are supervised by the legislative body. Larijani also voiced opposition to proposals put forth by Western nations to adopt intrusive inspections, which Iran claims are illegal. Citing Iran's progress in nuclear power, he called on the P5+1 to remember his nation's right to civilian nuclear technology under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Parliament deputy Hamid Reza Haji Babaei reportedly went even further, explicitly linking Iran's progress in this area with recent overtures to negotiate. "The world has come to this conclusion about our country's peaceful nuclear technology that the time for the carrot and the stick (approach) has passed and they should open the door for negotiations," he told reporters. Such proclamations suggest that the announcements made by Ahmadinejad and Aqazadeh on April 9 were part of an effort to strengthen Iran's position leading up to the talks with the P5+1.
Former Prime Minister and leading presidential challenger Mirhossein Mousavi is advocating a different approach regarding the nuclear standoff. While he claimed that no Iranian decision maker or candidate would agree to the suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment program he suggested that as president he would support verification measures to affirm that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons. "No one will retreat. But we have to see what solutions or in other words what guarantees can be found to verify the non-diversion of the program into nuclear weapons," he explained. Mousavi also said that progress on this issue will depend on how the United States approaches a dialogue with Iran.
Officials involved with the development of the Obama administration's Iran policy report that they are considering a similar proposal. They told David Sanger of the New York Times on April 13 that under their proposal, which is also being reviewed by European officials in private strategy sessions, Iran would agree to progressively more intrusive inspections in exchange for the P5+1 accepting its uranium enrichment program for an unspecified length of time during negotiations. This proposal would mark a dramatic departure from the approach taken by the Bush administration, which refused to engage directly with Iran until it agreed to suspend enrichment. The new administration's proposal has long been advocated by European officials and the IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei. Administration officials noted, however, that their plan is still at the "brainstorming level."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on April 14 plans to launch into orbit another domestically-built satellite, Iran's official IRNA news agency reports. He explained that the satellite would be carried by a rocket with a range of 700-1,500 kilometers (450-950 miles) but did not provide further details. The February launch involved the Omid (Hope) rocket with a range of 200-500 kilometers (155-310 miles). Iran plans to launch three new satellites by 2010, ostensibly for communications, meteorological studies and geological research. Western officials believe Tehran's space program is a front for advancing its missile technology.
President Ahmadinejad led a ceremony on April 9 to mark the opening of a nuclear fuel manufacturing plant (FMP) near the city of Isfahan and touted its operation as being the last milestone in the country's fuel production programme for Iran's heavy and light water reactors. He also announced Iran's successful testing of two new types of (unspecified) high capacity centrifuges. On the same day Gholam Reza Aqazadeh, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), claimed that Iran had now installed 7,000 centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, up from the 6,000 claimed in February.
But a diplomat close to the IAEA seemed to think that these reports were exaggerated. "It doesn't appear that there has been any dramatic change in the progress of the program [since February], except for some additional centrifuges being put in place," the diplomat explained. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed similar skepticism and sought to play down the developments. "We don't know what to believe about the Iranian program. We've heard many different assessments and claims over a number of years," she said.
Relations between the United States and Iran became more complicated with the Iranian government's arrest of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, on trial accused of spying for the United States. US State Department spokesman Wood called these charges "baseless and without foundation" and said that the administration is working for her release.
In an interview with The Atlantic on March 31, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described halting Iran's nuclear program as one of the most important tasks facing the Obama administration. While supportive of the US president's attempts at engagement, Netanyahu expressed skepticism at the prospects for success. When asked if he thought that Iran could be stopped by non-military means, the Prime Minister replied: "Yes, I do, but only if the military option is left on the table." The following day in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, US General David Patreus explained that Israel "may see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it may take preemptive military action to derail or delay it."
But officials from the Obama administration have cautioned against a preemptive strike. In an interview with CNN on April 7, Vice President Joseph Biden warned that Israel would be "ill-advised" to launch such an attack, and said he did not believe that it would do so. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also voiced his opposition. At a meeting with students of Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia on April 13, he explained that a preemptive strike would only temporarily halt Iran's nuclear program, and in the long run would actually "cement its determination to have a nuclear program." Gates suggested instead that a tough economic sanctions regime should be used against Iran.
Stories and Links
Iran offers olive branch to West, Upstreamonline.com, April 16, 2009 (10.50 GMT)
Iran says it welcomes nuclear talks with the west, Nasir Karimi, Associated Press via Yahoo! News, April 13, 2009
Moussavi hopes to build more modern Iran, Najmeh Bozorgmehr, Financial Times, April 13, 2009
US may drop key condition for talks with Iran, David E Sanger, The New York Times, April 13, 2009
MP: Iran N path irreversible, Fars News Agency, April 11, 2009
Netanyahu and Obama: A controversy, and an update, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic Online-Channels, April 2, 2009
Comments, editorials and analysis
Iran talks: definition of terms, Joshua Pollack, Total WonKerr Blog, April 15, 2009
To curtail the Iranian nuclear threat, change Tehran's threat perceptions, Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association, April 13, 2009
Iran's progress breaks West's illusions, Fars News Agency, April 11, 2009
Video tour of Iran's nuclear sites, Institute for Science and International Security, April 10, 2009
Iran's fuel fabrication: step closer to energy independence or a bomb?, Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich, FAS Strategic Security Blog, April 10, 2009
FACTBOX: What is the nuclear fuel cycle?, Reuters, April 9, 2009
Iran's Nuclear Technology Day, happy for some, Robert Mackey, The Lede Blog-The New York Times, April 9, 2009 http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/09/irans-nuclear-technology-day-happy-for-some/?ref=middleeast
Netanyahu and threat of bombing Iran - the bluff that never stops giving?, Trita Parsi, The Huffington Post, April 8, 2009
Obama seeks Russian cooperation on Iran, Peter Crail, Arms Control Today, April 2009