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Analysis: Movement but no grand bargain with Iran

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[September 25, 2009]  NEW YORK (AP) -- In diplomatic parlance, it's called "movement" -- a small step here and there in the direction of a deal but with an uncertain end. Those stirrings of motion may be what are now emerging with international efforts to ensure that Iran does not build a nuclear bomb.

After a week of meetings aimed at thwarting Iranian nuclear ambitions, there are hopeful hints of movement between the U.S. and its partners and even signs of openness from Iran. But it's hard to see that yielding a grand bargain anytime soon.

Among the positive steps: After years of resisting negotiations, the Iranians have agreed to meet with officials of the U.S. and five other world powers in Geneva next week. Nuclear issues are on the agenda, but Iran says that doesn't include its own nuclear program.

President Barack Obama also won a new measure of Russian support -- at least rhetorically -- for imposing tougher international sanctions to squeeze Iran in the months ahead if the Geneva talks lead to a dead end.

A week after Obama pleased Russia by scaling back a Bush-era missile shield proposal for Europe, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded by suggesting his government might look favorably at stiffening sanctions if Iran proves unreceptive.

China, however, whose cooperation on sanctions enforcement also would be important, remains publicly opposed to threatening penalties and threw a damper on any support.

"China always believes that sanction and pressure should not be an option and will not be conducive to the current diplomatic efforts over the Iran nuclear issue," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

China and Russia are essential for sanctions to succeed because of their large and growing trade and investment interests in the Gulf region. China, which depends on foreign imports for about half its oil, counts Iran as its third-largest supplier. It also sells weapons to Iran, and the Pentagon said earlier this year that some were ending up with terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even with support for sanctions still uncertain, Iran seemed to set a softer tone during the U.N. General Assembly this week. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told The Associated Press his government will not stand in the way of "free and open" discussion of nuclear issues at the Geneva talks.

The next day, he indicated for the first time that Tehran would be willing to have its nuclear experts meet with Western scientists. Protests outside Ahmadinejad's hotel hinted at a strong factor in Iran's sudden flexibility -- the regime may be more inclined to deal in light of the domestic upheaval still simmering after the disputed June presidential election and the government's crackdown.


Time is a crucial factor for all the parties. The longer a stalemate or standoff continues, the closer Iran is likely to get to having the capacity to build a nuclear bomb -- although the Tehran government insists the U.S. and others are wrong in claiming it intends to go nuclear.

The New York Times reported Friday that Obama, along with the leaders of Britain and France in Pittsburgh for the G-20 economic summit, will accuse Iran of building a covert underground plant to produce nuclear fuel.

Senior administration officials told the Times that Tehran has kept the existence of the plant secret for years from international weapons inspectors.

A diplomat in Vienna and another European government official told The Associated Press that Iran has informed the U.N. nuclear agency that it has a previously undeclared uranium enriching facility.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was confidential, said Tehran revealed the existence of the second enrichment plant in a letter sent Monday to Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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Obama has said he will assess the state of diplomatic progress with Iran by December, emphasizing that talks cannot drag on indefinitely.

Israel, fearing it would be the target of Iranian nuclear threats, has talked of the possibility of a pre-emptive strike.

By U.S. estimates, Iran is one to five years away from having a nuclear weapons capability, although U.S. intelligence also believes that Iranian leaders have not yet made the decision to build a weapon.

Iran also is developing a long-range ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead, but the administration said last week that it believes that effort has been slowed -- which paved the way for the Obama's decision to shelve the Bush missile shield plan, which would have targeted Iranian ballistic missiles.

Nicholas Burns, a professor of diplomacy at Harvard who was the Bush administration's point man on Iran from 2005-08, said he's skeptical that the coming talks will produce a breakthrough. But he believes Obama is right to try.

"It's far too early to say whether or not the Iranian government is going to be at all serious about these negotiations," Burns said in a telephone interview. "They have turned down negotiations or resisted them for the past three years.

"Now that they are going to start talks with the U.S., I think we should expect Iran is going to be extraordinarily difficult in these negotiations and that there is a very good prospect that they will not succeed," he said.

In Burns' view, making the attempt at bargaining strengthens Obama's hand in the event the talks fail and he resorts to seeking tougher sanctions.

Even the sanctions path would be an uncertain gambit. Enforcing penalties would be difficult and there is no assurance that even the fullest enforcement would compel Iran to change its mind on restraining its nuclear program.

Sami Alfaraj, a Kuwaiti security expert who advises the Gulf Cooperation Council -- a regional body that includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman -- said in a telephone interview that negotiations with Iran would be more effective if those six Gulf countries were given a place at the bargaining table.

Alfaraj expects no negotiating breakthrough in the short term, but he believes there is a reasonable possibility that if the U.S. and the other established nuclear powers take new and significant steps toward disarmament, Iran might see reason to reconsider its nuclear stance.

"I'm modestly optimistic," he said.

[Associated Press; By ROBERT BURNS]

Robert Burns has covered national security and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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