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.