UNITED NATIONS — After Secretary of State John F. Kerry sits down Thursday with his Iranian counterpart to start the highest level talks between the two nations in 34 years, negotiators for the two sides are likely to grapple with a highly sensitive issue:
Can the mullahs in Tehran be trusted to enrich uranium — potential nuclear bomb fuel — to even low levels on their own soil?
President Obama and newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both implicitly raised the question during their addresses Tuesday to world leaders at the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering. It doubtless will come up again Thursday when Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Rouhani, a relative moderate who has vowed to thaw relations with the West, referred to Iran's "sovereign right" to enrich uranium for power plants and other nonmilitary uses.
Obama was more guarded, saying America respects the "right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy."
Some analysts noted the similar language and speculated that the two governments used back-channel talks to consider a possible route to a deal that would force Iran to give up any bomb-making capabilities but would allow low-level enrichment closely monitored by U.N. nuclear inspectors, just as happens in other countries under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed.
The president has not approved an enrichment deal for Iran, but some analysts believe he used his speech to float a diplomatic trial balloon.
The Obama administration, like the George W. Bush administration, has never publicly affirmed Iran's right to enrich uranium. But as Iran has steadily moved closer to bomb-making capability, and Washington and its allies have sought to stop the process short of going to war, the question has gained urgency.
To advocates, including some current and former Obama administration officials, and some foreign governments, allowing Iran to enrich uranium for energy may be a face-saving way to curtail Iran's broader nuclear ambitions. The West suspects that Iran ultimately aims to build a nuclear weapon, a goal Iran has repeatedly denied.
To skeptics, including the Israeli government and many in Congress, even enrichment of uranium to 5% purity — the level used for civil power plants — would amount to surrender. Iran, they believe, would require the West to ease punitive economic sanctions as part of any deal, and secretly move nuclear work into hidden sites until it reaches bomb-making capability.
"This is not the time to concede domestic enrichment or plutonium reprocessing to the Iranian regime, just because it demands that this is nonnegotiable," said Mark Dubowitz of the pro-sanctions Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Dubowitz said he believes that Obama's U.N. speech "left open the door" for domestic enrichment in Iran. He called that prospect a potential catastrophic mistake given Iran's history of hiding enrichment facilities, destroying evidence and refusing to provide full access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.
At least when he was still in the Senate, and head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry disagreed. In an interview with the Financial Times in May 2011, then-Sen. Kerry made it clear that he was open to permitting Iran some limited enrichment, with strong international safeguards, as part of a deal that would forestall war.
"The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous ... because it seemed so unreasonable to people," Kerry said. "They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose."
To be sure, both the Obama administration and the Iranian government would face enormous political hurdles at home for that kind of deal. Both Obama and Rouhani must justify any deal to influential leaders and pressure groups that are deeply suspicious of any compromise. Senior members of Congress in both parties are likely to oppose enrichment, for example.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he won't accept any deal with Iran unless Tehran agrees to close its underground enrichment plant at Fordow, end plutonium work that could lead to weapons capability, get rid of all uranium and halt all uranium enrichment. Israel has repeatedly threatened to use military force if necessary to stop the Iranian program.
Russia has been willing to grant Iran some enrichment. Britain and Germany would probably go along if the United States decided it could support some enrichment. The French government has expressed deep misgivings about permitting it.
U.S. officials say Iran must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions, suspend its nuclear enrichment and resolve U.N. inspectors' questions about its suspected nuclear weapons work.
The officials say once Iran meets those requirements, it will be treated like other signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But U.S. officials haven't specified what that treatment would entail.
Robert Einhorn, who was part of the administration's inner circle of Iran advisors until May, says he believes a deal could be devised to restrain Iran. But he said it would require intrusive inspections, strict monitoring of Iran's current nuclear complex, safeguards to detect any attempts to build new facilities and other restrictions "just to be in the ballpark of something" that the United States and five other major powers that are negotiating with Iran would accept.
Gary Samore, who was also a member of Obama's small Iran team until February, said the United States doesn't have a clear policy on whether it would accept limited Iranian enrichment "because the Iranians have never agreed to any limits."
As a result, administration officials "have never really had to answer the question," said Samore, now research chief at the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School.
In Iran this week, the public did not appear in a mood to accept any limits on uranium enrichment.
In Tehran, the reformist daily Shargh captioned its front-page photo of Obama addressing the U.N. General Assembly with the U.S. leader's statement, "We recognize the nuclear energy rights of Iran."
Hamid Reza Taraghi, head of the Islamic Coalition Party's international affairs council, said he was pleased with Rouhani's speech as it "was polite and at the same time uncompromising on revolutionary and Islamic values and expressed the rightful stance of Iran" on its uranium enrichment.
The daily newspaper Donya-e-Eghtesad, or World of Economy, carried on its front page what it said were the highlights of Tuesday's speeches in New York, including Obama's statements that "We do not seek regime change in Iran," and "We recognize the right of the Iranian nation for access to peaceful nuclear energy."
"The simplest way to resolve the nuclear issue is the [West's] recognition of Iran's inalienable right of enrichment," the semiofficial Fars News Agency said in reporting Rouhani's message.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun