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Mon 20 Feb 2012 10:44 AM

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UN officials in Iran for nuclear talks

Ban Ki-moon said claims nuclear program was peaceful are ''unconvincing''

UN officials in Iran for nuclear talks
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General (AFP/Getty Images)
UN officials in Iran for nuclear talks
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (AFP/Getty Images)

United Nations investigators begin two days of meetings in Iran today, offering Tehran’s government a chance to stem growing speculation the country’s nuclear program will spark a military conflict.

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency flew to the Iranian capital yesterday for their second round of talks in a month. The visit begins a week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country will boost production of 20 percent enriched uranium at a mountainside location in Fordo.

“This meeting is a crucial opportunity for everyone, including the Iranians, to get serious,” Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball said in a telephone interview from Vienna. “Getting serious means focusing on the near-term problem that 20 percent enriched uranium represents” which drives the “hysterical war talk in some quarters.”

The Iranians could be buying time for nuclear research and trying to avert a strike on their facilities, or seeking a face- saving end to the dispute.

“Iran and the U.S. have two different philosophies of negotiation,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” While the famous American book on the subject is called “Getting to Yes,” while “the Iranian equivalent of that book would be ‘Staying on Maybe,’” he said.

After 23 years of trying to preserve the status quo by avoiding transformative decisions, the tightening economic sanctions on Iran have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s back “increasingly against the wall,” Sadjadpour said. “And he has two ways of seeking relief: one is in the form of a nuclear compromise, and the other is in the form of a nuclear weapon.”

The simmering conflict over Iran’s nuclear work has driven oil prices higher. Israel and the US have refused to rule out military action against Iranian nuclear sites to prevent the country from acquiring a weapon. Iran, which hid its work for more than a decade before 2003, says it wants nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

“Negotiations are long overdue,” Olli Heinonen, who visited Iranian atomic installations about 20 times as the UN’s top former inspector, said in an e-mail. “I hope that we will now have a fresh start and all topics are addressed.”

Iran sent the European Union a letter Feb. 15 asking for negotiations to resume at the “earliest possibility,” according a copy of the one-page document obtained by Bloomberg. The U.S. is expected to respond this week about resuming talks with Tehran’s government, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Feb. 16.

Rising tension over Iran’s nuclear program has prompted the European Union and the U.S. to impose additional sanctions, restricting trade and financial transactions. Iran, the second- largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, after Saudi Arabia, is already under four rounds of UN sanctions.

Iran stopped exporting crude oil to French and British companies, the oil ministry’s news website Shana reported yesterday, citing Alireza Nikzad Rahbar, a ministry spokesman.

Iran “will give its crude oil to new customers instead of French and U.K. companies,” Rahbar said. The halt in shipments followed a warning by the oil minister that the Persian Gulf country might act preemptively ahead of a EU ban on purchases of Iranian crude planned to start in July, he said, according to the report.

Sanctions against Iran have created the conditions for a negotiated outcome, according to a Feb. 15 New York Times op-ed written by Dennis B. Ross, who served two years on the National Security Council as President Barack Obama’s special assistant on Iran.

IAEA inspectors should concentrate on getting more access to Iranian facilities and scientists without getting bogged down over questions about the authenticity of some intelligence shared with the agency, Kimball and Heinonen said.

The Vienna-based IAEA said in November that it had “credible” intelligence showing that Iran worked on components needed for a nuclear weapon until 2010. Robert Kelley, a U.S. nuclear-weapons scientist and former IAEA inspector, wrote Jan. 11 that some of the evidence may be forged, a claim that Iran has consistently made.

The agency has sought access to Iran’s Parchin military base and Lavisan physics center as well as to centrifuge workshops and uranium mines. All of Iran’s declared nuclear material is under IAEA seal, monitored by cameras and subject to regular inspection.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Iranian assertions that its nuclear program is peaceful are unconvincing and that it is up to the government in Tehran to assuage suspicions over its atomic work.

While “the onus is on the Iranian side to convince the international community that their nuclear program is genuinely peaceful,” Ban said Feb. 17 that “there is no alternative to a peaceful resolution on this issue.”

Diplomats, under a “tremendous amount of pressure to make a deal,” should exercise caution with Iran’s government, according to Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

“Tehran may not only reject it, it might become the new standard other countries will demand you meet in reaching any new nuclear deals,” he said. If Iran is ultimately permitted to enrich uranium, the U.S. will find it difficult to tell other countries not to follow suit, according to Sokolski.