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Iran's mixed signals

The Geneva talks last week between Iran and the international community represented by the so-called P5+1 Group — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — did not produce any major breakthroughs toward resolving Western concerns about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, nor were they expected to. What they did was reopen the first serious negotiations on the issue since Iran's new president, Hasan Rowhani, took office in August. Mr. Rowhani desperately wants to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue that will allow a lifting of the crippling sanctions that have hamstrung his country's economy. But whether he is willing — or able — to do what the U.S. and its allies are demanding in order to prove Iran's nuclear ambitions are peaceful remains an open question.

That question has grown vastly more problematic since the last round of talks, in 2003, ended in failure. Since then, Iran has significantly increased its capacity to enrich uranium to weapons-grade material and installed thousands of new, high-speed centrifuges in fortress-like facilities buried deep underground where they are virtually invulnerable to attack. Moreover, Iran is nearer to opening a new plant that produces plutonium, which can also be used in weapons. American officials warn that Iran now has several possible paths toward building a bomb and that unless it halts or reverses such activities immediately there won't be any time left to negotiate any agreement on nuclear issues before it achieves a "breakout capacity" to quickly assemble a weapon.

Because Iran has asked the parties to the talks not to reveal details of their discussions, we have no way of knowing whether the new Iranian proposal that was presented last week addresses such issues or whether Iran is willing to accept any limits at all on its ability produce fissile materials. Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, insisted on Tuesday that Iran had a right to enrich uranium and that the country would never allow its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium — which can be used either to power reactors or to build a bomb — to be taken out of the country. That was an idea Russia once proposed as a way out of the impasse, but it never went anywhere.

Most of Iran's uranium stockpile is in the form of low-enriched material of 5 percent purity that cannot be used to make weapons. But the country has also produced 440 pounds of 20 percent, medium-enriched uranium that could be quickly upgraded to the 90 percent purity level required for a weapon. That amount is just below what is required for one bomb.

But while Mr. Araghchi seemingly has sought to be conciliatory by appealing for international nuclear cooperation — including asking other countries to provide Iran with 20 percent enriched uranium for its research reactor near Tehran — he categorically rejected on the first day of talks any idea of Iran's suspending enrichment completely until all the questions about the nature of nuclear program are resolved.

That leaves the only thing about the new Iranian initiative we can be certain of is that it presents a confusing and contradictory mix of belligerent posturing, unilateral declarations and appeals for reconciliation that, depending on which side you happen to be on, could be interpreted to mean whatever you wanted it to. Either Iran truly is serious about reaching an accommodation with the West and ending its isolation, or it is simply using the talks to buy time to develop a full-fledged nuclear weapons capability and present it to the world as a fait accompli. No wonder the U.S. and its allies remain deeply skeptical that the new Iranian president can be believed when he says he seeks better relations with the West.

Israel, in particular, remains disinclined to accept the notion that Mr. Rowhani's election as Iran's president represents a meaningful departure from its past policies or that it has in any way altered the Iranian leadership's determination to destroy the Jewish state. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu ridicules Mr. Rowhani's overtures to the West as those of "a wolf in sheep's clothing" who can't be trusted. "Peaceful programs do not require uranium enrichment or plutonium production," he recently said. "Iran's nuclear weapons program does."

The Obama administration is certainly right to prefer talks to military action in dealing with the threat posed by Iran's nuclear activities, and it would have been a serious mistake not to engage in a dialogue with Iran's new leader to determine whether his offer to negotiate is serious. But U.S. officials must also be aware that Iran may just be trying to run out the clock again through this latest initiative, and that time is running out for a diplomatic solution. Let's hope Mr. Rowhani and the man he reports to, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, realize that as well.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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