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.
At the time, the deal looked like creative diplomacy. Iranian negotiators had agreed in principle to transfer more than 2,600 pounds of low-enriched uranium out of the country so that Russia and France could convert it into the specialized fuel cells for the reactor. The United States would help improve safety at the reactor, which makes medical isotopes for cancer patients.
But the deal quickly fell apart as Iranian officials backed away, suggesting that U.S. crowing about its achievement had hurt Iranian pride. Iran later renegotiated the deal with Turkey and Brazil, but that pact was rejected by the other powers.
Now, Iran has indicated that the only part of its nuclear program it is willing to discuss is the research reactor, which is not controversial, instead of the centrifuge facility at Natanz that is the source of international concern. Moreover, Iran has begun enriching some uranium to 19.75 percent, bringing it a step closer to weapons-grade, because that is the level needed for the medical isotope facility.
Because Iran has built up its stockpile since the deal fell apart, the United States and the other countries at the table have agreed to demand substantially more enriched uranium from Iran this time. But analysts point out that 2,600 pounds would fulfill Iran's requirements at the research reactor for the next 20 years, making it unclear why Iran would have any incentive to give up more.
Ivanka Barzashka, a research associate at the Federation of American Scientists, said Iran will perceive the West as once again moving the goal posts. She said it was more important to quickly strike a deal that results in Iran giving up the 66 pounds of 19.75 percent uranium it had produced and enough low-enriched uranium, about 2,200 pounds, to produce the rest of the fuel needed by the reactor.
The "political selling point" of Iran giving up enough uranium so it did not have enough for a bomb has been rendered meaningless by Iran's continued production of enriched uranium in the past year, she said.
"The more important thing is to get this settled," said Ivan Oelrich, senior fellow at the federation. "We should just clear the decks to get the talks going."