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Iran, world powers to hold nuclear talks in October

Analysts foresee a complicated game of diplomatic chess, with Tehran hoping to delay sanctions while the U.S. tries to convince Russia and China to agree to a harsher response if the talks fail.

September 15, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — After months of anticipation, the United States, Iran and other world powers on Monday set an Oct. 1 date to meet and potentially discuss Iran's nuclear program, which remains a source of concern to the West and Israel.

While the Obama administration has reversed U.S. policy by agreeing to meet on the nuclear issue without preconditions, Iran has all but ruled out talks over halting its production of reactor-grade nuclear fuel, the West's central worry.

"We believe that nuclear technology, the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear energy, is our sovereign right," Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters in Vienna on Monday.

"So we have no bargaining on this," he added. "But this does not mean that within a larger framework [of] discussing nuclear issues, disarmament, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, nonproliferation . . . in this regard, yes, we are open to discussion."

Analysts foresee a complicated game of diplomatic chess, with the Iranians hoping to delay the imposition of economic sanctions and divide world powers while the U.S. and its allies try to convince Russia and China to agree to a harsher response if the talks are seen as a failure.

After a delay of nearly five months, Tehran last week submitted a proposal for talks with the U.S., Russia, China and Western European nations, welcoming discussion on a broad range of topics but not mentioning its continued production of enriched uranium in violation of five United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Western powers believe Iran is producing fissile material to develop nuclear weapons; Iran says it is interested only in energy production for civilian use.

"If their only purpose was to confuse the matter or to let the members of the Security Council argue that we still haven't tested Iran, a government would have done just what they did," said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

After initial grumbling over the contents of the package, an updated version of one submitted last year, the U.S. and Europe jumped at the chance to meet with Iran. To many analysts, the agreement to meet shows that it didn't really matter what was in the Iranian package. That Iran would come to the table was enough.

"It provides at least a small chance of diplomats finding a way forward," Allison said.

The meeting place has not been determined, though Turkey has offered to serve as host. The U.S. will dispatch William Burns, a veteran diplomat who spoke for the United States at an exploratory Geneva conference with Iran and others in July 2008.

The talks will probably last months, analysts say, which is likely to displease those who fear Iran is close to gaining nuclear weapons capability. Some in Israel, which has as many as 200 nuclear warheads, say a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites is the only way to keep the country from acquiring the weapons.

U.S. officials want to be seen as having given negotiations every possible chance before considering other action.

President Obama is "being consistent with what he has been saying for over a year," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control expert now at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "He's willing to meet with the enemies as well as friends without preconditions."

American officials don't have high hopes for the talks. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the U.S. hoped to "really lay out to [the Iranians] in a very stark fashion the choices they have" between complying with international demands or facing stiff penalties.

Harvard's Allison said Obama's strategy was to "engage them and talk to them and to bring to those talks as many sticks as he can, and some carrots, and the promise of a much worse stick and more appetizing carrots."

But the administration's outreach isn't necessarily just a precursor to tougher action, analysts said. Engagement could produce an agreement that would stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

"I think it's more than a cynical checking-of-the-box exercise," Fitzpatrick said. "I think Obama is truly interested in turning over every stone to see if there's any possibility here."

Iranian officials have floated the idea of a nuclear consortium that would put sensitive aspects of their atomic program under the auspices of a company co-owned by Iran and other nations.

Publicly disclosing the choices Obama presents could also pressure Iran to negotiate in good faith. Even the U.S. agreement to meet with Iran could undermine the Islamic Republic's anti-American ideology and security posture.

Diplomacy "absolutely undermines one of the very pillars of the Islamic Republic: their antipathy to the United States," Fitzpatrick said. "They're in a quandary about how to deal with Obama's open hand."

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daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.

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