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Hints of Compromise on Iran

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
September 12, 2006

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Concessions, compromise, and confidence-building measures—the hallmarks of any diplomatic deal—have been somewhat lacking in negotiations with Iran. That may change, however, as Washington and Tehran both appear to be softening their stances (WashPost). In high stakes talks over the weekend, Iran’s chief negotiator Ali Larijani signaled he would not rule out a temporary two-month suspension of Tehran’s uranium-enrichment activities, despite objections from some hard-line Iranian critics (NYT). The suspension, of course, would come with strings attached: The UN Security Council must first drop Iran from its agenda and return the case to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has indicated a willingness to halt U.S. calls for sanctions against Iran in exchange for a temporary suspension. It is not clear whether or not the compromise would lead to direct U.S.-Iran negotiations (previously Washington had called for a permanent halt to enrichment activities before any direct discussion could take place). The United States has already put backdoor financial pressure on Tehran by barring Iranian banks—many of them state owned—from the U.S. financial system (AP).

Last month, Iran rejected a formal proposal by China, Russia, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States to suspend its enrichment activities in exchange for a package of political and economic incentives. At the time, Iran said it was within its rights, granted by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. U.S. officials suspect Iran wants to build a bomb and are pressing China and Russia to back up their tough talk against Tehran with the threat of sanctions. Iran’s recent hints that it may temporarily halt enrichment activities may indicate other priorities. As Kaveh L. Afrasiabi writes in the Asia Times, there is less urgency for nuclear fuel because construction of Bushehr, a peaceful nuclear reactor, has been held up by Russia. "Many Iranians rightly ponder whether Bushehr will ever be completed by Russia," Afrasiabi writes. Another factor, nuclear expert David Albright tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, may be the lack of progress Iran is having with its enrichment program. "They barely have any enrichment going on," he says. Experts predicted Tehran would have as many as six operational cascades by the end of the summer; Iran currently only has one.

Still, from Washington’s perspective there is some urgency to resolve the issue sooner rather than later, given Iran’s growing presence in the region—buoyed by high oil prices, Hezbollah’s draw with Israel, and U.S. failures in Iraq. "The traditional alliances and rivalries that have balanced and contained Iran’s influence simply no longer exist," writes CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh in the Financial Times, referring primarily to Iraq and the Gulf monarchies. Further, "the United States has become bogged down in Iraq in a major way militarily and that takes away from its capability to contain Iran," CFR Senior Adjunct Fellow Vali Nasr tells al-Jazeera. Stanford University’s Scott D. Sagan writes in Foreign Affairs that given Iran's ascendancy and "[f]aced with only unattractive options to stem proliferation, some Bush administration officials are reluctantly preparing to live with a nuclear Iran."

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