April 14, 2009
U.S. May Drop Key Condition for Talks With Iran
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and its European allies are preparing proposals that would shift strategy toward Iran by dropping a longstanding American insistence that Tehran rapidly shut down nuclear facilities during the early phases of negotiations over its atomic program, according to officials involved in the discussions.
The proposals, exchanged in confidential strategy sessions with European allies, would press Tehran to open up its nuclear program gradually to wide-ranging inspection. But the proposals would also allow Iran to continue enriching uranium for some period during the talks. That would be a sharp break from the approach taken by the Bush administration, which had demanded that Iran halt its enrichment activities, at least briefly to initiate negotiations.
The proposals under consideration would go somewhat beyond President Obama’s promise, during the presidential campaign, to open negotiations with Iran “without preconditions.” Officials involved in the discussion said they were being fashioned to draw Iran into nuclear talks that it had so far shunned.
A review of Iran policy that Mr. Obama ordered after taking office is still under way, and aides say it is not clear how long he would be willing to allow Iran to continue its fuel production, and at what pace. But European officials said there was general agreement that Iran would not accept the kind of immediate shutdown of its facilities that the Bush administration had demanded.
“We have all agreed that is simply not going to work — experience tells us the Iranians are not going to buy it,” said a senior European official involved in the strategy sessions with the Obama administration. “So we are going to start with some interim steps, to build a little trust.”
Administration officials declined to discuss details of their confidential deliberations, but said that any new American policy would ultimately require Iran to cease enrichment, as demanded by several United Nations Security Council resolutions.
“Our goal remains exactly what it has been in the U.N. resolutions: suspension,” one senior administration official said. Another official cautioned that “we are still at the brainstorming level” and said the terms of an opening proposal to Iran were still being debated.
If the United States and its allies allow Iran to continue enriching uranium for a number of months, or longer, the approach is bound to meet objections, from both conservatives in the United States and from the new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
If Mr. Obama signed off on the new negotiating approach, the United States and its European allies would use new negotiating sessions with Iran to press for interim steps toward suspension of its nuclear activities, starting with allowing international inspectors into sites from which they have been barred for several years.
First among them is a large manufacturing site in downtown Tehran, a former clock factory, where Iran is producing many of the next-generation centrifuges that it is installing in the underground plant at Natanz. “The facility is very large,” one United Nations inspector said last week, “and we have not been inside since last summer.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors would be a critical part of the strategy, said in an interview in his office in Vienna last week that the Obama administration had not consulted him on the details of a new strategy. But he was blistering about the approach that the Bush administration had taken.
“It was a ridiculous approach,” he insisted. “They thought that if you threatened enough and pounded the table and sent Cheney off to act like Darth Vader the Iranians would just stop,” Dr. ElBaradei said, shaking his head. “If the goal was to make sure that Iran would not have the knowledge and the capability to manufacture nuclear fuel, we had a policy that was a total failure.”
Now, he contended, Mr. Obama has little choice but to accept the reality that Iran has “built 5,500 centrifuges,” nearly enough to make two weapons’ worth of uranium each year. “You have to design an approach that is sensitive to Iran’s pride,” said Dr. ElBaradei, who has long argued in favor of allowing Iran to continue with a small, face-saving capacity to enrich nuclear fuel, under strict inspection.
By contrast, in warning against a more flexible American approach, a senior Israeli with access to the intelligence on Iran said during a recent visit to Washington that Mr. Obama had only until the fall or the end of the year to “completely end” the production of uranium in Iran. The official made it clear that after that point, Israel might revive its efforts to take out the Natanz plant by force.
A year ago, Israeli officials secretly came to the Bush administration seeking the bunker-destroying bombs, refueling capability and overflight rights over Iraq that it would need to execute such an attack. President George W. Bush deflected the proposal. An Obama administration official said “they have not been back with that request,” but added that “we don’t think their threats are just huffing and puffing.”
Israeli officials and some American intelligence officials say they suspect that Iran has other hidden facilities that could be used to enrich uranium, a suspicion explored in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. But while that classified estimate referred to 10 or 15 suspect sites, officials say no solid evidence has emerged of hidden activity.
“Frankly,” said one administration official, “what’s most valuable to us now is having real freedom for the inspectors to pursue their suspicions around the country.
“We know what’s happening at Natanz,” said the official, noting that every few weeks inspectors are in and out of the plant. “It’s the rest of the country we’re most worried about.”
Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, said in a interview on Monday that the Obama administration had some latitude in defining what constitutes “suspension” of nuclear work.
One possibility, he said, was “what you call warm shutdown,” in which the centrifuges keep spinning, but not producing new enriched uranium, akin to leaving a car running, but in park.
That would allow both sides to claim victory: the Iranians could claim they had resisted American efforts to shut down the program, while the Americans and Europeans could declare that they had halted the stockpiling of material that could be used to produce weapons.
“The hard part of these negotiations is how to convince everyone that there are no covert sites,” Mr. Bunn said.