The abrupt firing of Foreign Minister Mottaki of Iran, ousted while traveling in Africa, probably doesn't mean much for the just-resumed US-Iran talks, which restarted last week in Geneva and which are slated to resume in late January in Turkey. Mottaki was fired by President Ahmadinejad in an internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad, Iran's parliament and various conservatives opposed to Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, it appears. But in the ongoing nuclear talks, where Iran is represented by Saeed Jalili, the chief of Iran's national security council, Mottaki wasn't a big player. And Ahmadinejad, who agreed to last October's deal to export most of Iran's enriched uranium for processing into fuel rods, is a relative dove on this issue, at least as far as many analysts believe.
Between now and January, however, the United States is going to have to engage in some spirited, behind-the-scenes talks with Iran to make the negotiations work.
The key question: Will the United States agree that Iran retains the right to enrich uranium? As I wrote in a recent piece for The Nation, there are many straws in the wind suggesting that the Obama administration is ready to do that. Earlier this month, a passel of senators led by Sen. Joe Lieberman wrote a letter to the White House demanding that the United States stick to its guns (literally) and not recognize Iran's legitimate rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty. They did that, according to one source, after the senators were briefed by the administration that Obama was ready to put that deal on the table.
Needless to say, the devil is in the details, and it isn't clear that Iran's topsy-turvy politics will allow the Iranian government to go along. (The deal would be this: Iran can keep spinning its centrifuges, producing more low-enriched uranium, or LEU, as long as they don't add any more machines and as long as they ship the product to Russia, or some other country, where the LEU can be turned into fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant. All this would Iran to submit to more intrusive inspections and oversight of its program. The deal could be described as win-win: Iran can claim that it won the world's recognition of its enrichment program, while the P5+1 powers, including the United States, can say that they forced Iran to accept onerous inspections that go far beyond the IAEA's current regime.)
Last week, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that the European Union's negotiator had specifically proposed a version of that deal to Iran:
The European Union is proposing that Iran be allowed to continue its uranium enrichment processes if it agrees to tight United Nations supervision of its nuclear program, diplomatic sources told Haaretz on Wednesday….
Diplomatic sources told Haaretz on Wednesday indicated that the offer would be discussed in further detail at the next round of talks, scheduled to take place in Istanbul at the beginning of next year.
The article added that the United States was not "thrilled" by the EU effort. And last week, a senior American official told The Nation that the Haaretz article was flat-out false. But I don't think so. True, the United States won't tip its hand in advance by announcing its best offer in public, and so far the Obama administration is sticking to its stated objective that the goal of the nuclear talks is to force Iran to halt its enrichment program.
Interestingly enough, at a neocon-sponsored conference on Iran last week, I had a chance to ask a top Congressional staffer, Don MacDonald of Representative Brad Sherman's office, about the question of recognizing Iran's right to enrich. Surprisingly, MacDonald said that one question that ought to be raised is: "Could we live with some sort of arrangement where enrichment does happen on Iranian soil?" It should be pointed out that Representative Sherman, a California Democrat, is a hawk on Iran and the leader of the movement in Congress to impose stricter sanctions against Iran.
At the same conference, Gary Samore, President Obama's top adviser to nuclear policy, laid out a hard-line view of the US-Iran showdown, saying, "We and our allies are determined to maintain and even increase pressure. We need to send the message to Iran that sanctions will only increase if Iran avoids serious negotiations and will not be lifted until our concerns are fully addressed." (Weirdly enough, Samore's speech followed a panel discussion by ultra-hardliners about the "kinetic option," i.e., a military attack on Iran, and Samore said that he "agreed with a great deal of what was said, probably more than I can publicly admit to." That's unsettling, to say the least, and afterwards I asked Samore about it in the hallway outside. He refused to clarify what he meant—but it seemed obvious.)
On the other hand, Samore did say that the United States wasn't necessarily opposed to a freeze-for-freeze option, that is, negotiating a temporary freeze in enrichment in exchange for a freeze on sanctions. (That was an old EU proposal, and I don't think it's relevant any longer.) The real issue is: what's in Samore's back pocket? And more important, what does Bill Burns think? Because it's Burns, leading the talks from the State Department, who's probably more important than Samore on this issue.
Again, in the corridor outside the conference, I asked a top Israeli expert, Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, program director for the Institute of Conemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, about the idea of a deal to allow Iran to continue enrichment. His argument: a deal is no good, since Iran might be able secretly to divert its LEU into a weapons program, even under a regime of strict IAEA inspections. But that makes no sense to me: if Iran can conduct a secret diversion program, why can't it do the same if it halts or suspends enrichment at its known facility in Natanz and do it elsewhere, secretly?