WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and its European allies plan to open new negotiations with Iran by demanding the immediate closing and ultimate dismantling of a recently completed nuclear facility deep under a mountain, according to American and European diplomats.
They are also calling for a halt in the production of uranium fuel that is considered just a few steps from bomb grade, and the shipment of existing stockpiles of that fuel out of the country, the diplomats said.
That negotiating position will be the opening move in what President Obama has called Iran’s “last chance” to resolve its nuclear confrontation with the United Nations and the West diplomatically. The hard-line approach would require the country’s military leadership to give up the Fordo enrichment plant outside the holy city of Qum, and with it a huge investment in the one facility that is most hardened against airstrikes.
While it is unclear whether the allies would accept anything less than closing and disassembling Fordo, government and outside experts say the terms may be especially difficult for Iran’s leaders to accept when they need to appear strong in the face of political infighting.
'No idea how the Iranians will react'
Still, Mr. Obama and his allies are gambling that crushing sanctions and the threat of Israeli military action will bolster the arguments of those Iranians who say a negotiated settlement is far preferable to isolation and more financial hardship. Other experts fear the tough conditions being set could instead swing the debate in favor of Iran’s hard-liners.
“We have no idea how the Iranians will react,” one senior administration official said. “We probably won’t know after the first meeting.” But the next round of oil sanctions, he noted, kicks in early this summer.
The bitter tension among competing factions inside Iran’s leadership, only some of it related to the nuclear issue, may explain the country’s continued haggling about the venue of the talks, planned for Friday. In recent days, Iran has changed its position and balked at holding them in Istanbul, demanding a move to what Tehran calls more neutral territory, like Iraq or China.Story: Iran's efforts to stir Afghan violence worry US
The shift has underscored doubts among Obama administration officials and their European partners about Iran’s readiness to negotiate seriously and to finally answer questions from international nuclear inspectors about its program’s “possible military dimensions.” Those questions are based in part on evidence that Iran may have worked on warhead designs and nuclear triggers.
'Will never choose this path'
In what may be a sign of the competing, and sometimes confusing, views in Iran, a leading lawmaker, Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam, said on Friday that his country “has the scientific and technological capability” to produce a nuclear weapon “but will never choose this path.” The statement appeared to be an effort to put Iran in the company of nuclear-capable states that have committed not to produce a weapon, like Japan. But the statement, which appeared on the Parliament’s Web site, was taken down by late Saturday, possibly signaling discord.
There is disagreement among the Western allies about whether Iran’s leaders have made a political decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. American intelligence agencies have stuck to a 2007 intelligence assessment, which found that Iran suspended research on nuclear weapons technology in 2003 and has not decided to take the final steps needed to build a bomb. But Britain and Israel in particular, looking at essentially the same evidence, say that they believe a decision has been made to move to a nuclear-weapons capability, if not to a weapon itself.Officer: Iran could hit US if it came under attack
Some American officials say they have considerable confidence that if Iran moves to build a weapon, they will detect the signs in time to take military action, though others — notably former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates — have been more skeptical. American and Israeli officials say they have been more successful in the past few years in intelligence gathering in Iran, both from human sources and drone aircraft, like the stealth RQ-170 Sentinel that was lost over Iran late last year.
While opening bids in international negotiations are often designed to set a high bar, as a political matter American and European officials say they cannot imagine agreeing to any outcome that leaves Iran with a stockpile of fuel, enriched to 20 percent purity, that could be converted to bomb grade in a matter of months.
The outcome of the talks — or their breakdown — could well determine whether Washington will be able to quiet Israeli threats that it could take military action this year. But talking with Iran’s leaders also carries considerable political risk for Mr. Obama, with Iran emerging as one of the few major foreign policy issues in the presidential campaign.
Crisis by early summer?
If Iran rejects American and European demands to immediately halt the most dangerous elements of its program, Mr. Obama could face a crisis in the Persian Gulf by early summer in the midst of his re-election bid.
“This may be the most complex negotiation I’ve ever seen the president enter,” one senior administration official said last week. “It’s got the Democrats and Republicans looking to score points, the Russians and the Chinese trying to water down the sanctions, the French pushing for harsher actions and the Israelis threatening to take the program out.”Obama OKs tough new sanctions against Iran
European allies, especially the French and the British, say they are concerned that Mr. Obama will want to keep the negotiations going, however unproductive they might be, through the November presidential election to avoid the possibility of a military strike if the talks fail.
Israel and some European leaders fear that would play into what they perceive as Iran’s strategy to use the talks to buy time while its centrifuges keep spinning.
In interviews, administration officials said their “urgent priority” was to get Iran to give up — and ship out of the country — its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, and to get Tehran to close Fordo. Dismantlement, they said, would come in a second stage. So far Iran has produced only about 100 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium — less than it would need to produce a single nuclear weapon — but it has announced plans to increase production sharply in coming months.
It is unclear whether that is possible: sanctions, embargos on crucial parts and Western sabotage have all delayed the program. But because that fuel could be so quickly converted to highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the American and European strategy is to eliminate that stockpile, leaving time to negotiate on the fate of lower-enriched uranium.
Uranium enriched to about 5 percent does not pose as imminent a risk, but the United Nations Security Council has required that Iran halt all enrichment.Video: Clinton: Time for diplomacy almost up for Iran (on this page)
“Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Friday.
More lenient views
Others, however, are more willing to allow Iran some enrichment capabilities.
“What we are looking for is a way to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich, but only at levels that would give us plenty of warning if they moved toward a weapon,” one European diplomat familiar with the internal debates said.
Iran claims the right to enrich uranium as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows nations to pursue civilian nuclear power. The West says that Iran has breached its commitments by refusing to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency and refusing to comply with Security Council mandates.
While the six nations in the talks — Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — are prepared to allow Iran to have a nuclear power program, they say Iran must first restore its credibility and prove that it does not in fact have a military nuclear program. It can do so, they say, by allowing agency inspectors full access to all Iranian sites. Iran has refused to do so, and has barred the inspectors from talking to key nuclear scientists.
The Western negotiators all agree that in the first round of talks, Iran must prove its willingness to discuss its nuclear program without preconditions. In the last talks in January 2011, Tehran demanded that the six first lift all sanctions against Iran and recognize what Iran says is its “right to enrich.”
Last week, apparently in preparation for the meeting, Mr. Obama delivered a message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, through an intermediary: Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan met Mr. Obama during a summit meeting in Seoul late last month and then went directly to northeastern Iran. The message, American officials said, was that “there is great urgency” that Iran seriously negotiate now. But it is unclear how specific Mr. Erdogan may have been about the consequences of continued nuclear development.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Paris.
This article, "U.S. Defines Its Demands for New Round of Talks With Iran," first appeared in The New York Times.
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