Getting Iran to agree to talk about its nuclear program proves difficult

Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili in Beijing in April.
Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili in Beijing in April. (Ng Han Guan - AP)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:42 PM

For four months now, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili have traded a series of letters trying to pin down a time and place for Iran to meet with a group of powerful countries concerned about its nuclear program. Finally, late last week, the two sides appeared to have settled on a start date: Dec. 5.

But they have yet to agree on venue, a length for the talks or even the subject. Iran says it is willing to talk about everything but its uranium enrichment program; the other countries - the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - want to talk mostly about the entire nuclear progam.

The difficult path to restarting the talks, which have been on hold for more than a year, doesn't bode well, analysts and diplomats say.

The latest round of U.N. Security Council sanctions, which by all accounts have been more crippling than anticipated, was intended to force Tehran to begin negotiating seriously about its nuclear program. But Iranian officials, insisting that the program is for peaceful energy purposes, have given little indication they are interested in such a negotiation.

U.S. officials say that Iran's well-documented problems with its uranium enrichment program this year have greatly reduced concerns that Iran is on the brink of producing a nuclear weapon, giving additional time to strike a deal.

Iran is enriching uranium with a Pakistani version of a half-century-old Dutch design, and "the Iranians now have discovered that it's a very poor machine," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's prone to breaking down. They've had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these things break down."

The enrichment program appears to have plateaued at just under 4,000 active centrifuges, he added. "They could install a lot more if they wanted to but they've decided that this machine is a loser so that's why they stopped," he said, adding that the Iranians appear to have had little success with a more advanced design.

Yet, paradoxically, the rise of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives could bring new political pressure to bear on the administration, forcing it to harden its stance on Iran and making it more difficult to strike a deal.

In the past week, senior GOP figures have pushed the administration to take tougher steps. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, the incoming chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Reuters that "if the country with whom we are negotiating with and playing diplomatic niceties with gets the feeling that they can string us along and have no actions take place, I think that's to the detriment of the United States." She warned against conveying a "sense of weakness and a lack of resolve."

Although the Obama administration has publicly stressed its interest in negotiations, some administration officials and advisers privately think the president would use military force to set back Iran's nuclear program if it appeared the country was on the verge of having weapons capability.

At the same time, some analysts think the tough talk increasingly reduces the chances of a successful negotiation. "The stick side has been emphasized so much that it is hard for Iran to hear anything positive," said Paul R. Pillar, national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 who teaches at Georgetown University. He warned that military action would be "an enormous blunder with huge consequences for the United States."

The upcoming talks will also be complicated by a failed agreement concerning a medical research reactor in Tehran, the centerpiece of the talks in 2009.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company