Iran is preparing to offer to limit its production of nuclear fuel in exchange for an easing of international sanctions. It will make the offer at a conference slated to take place next week in Geneva that diplomats hope will mark a new chapter in Western relations with Iran, officials familiar with the upcoming talks said Wednesday.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the new offer, being suggested by the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, is meant to jumpstart long-stalled negotiations with world powers over the country’s nuclear program.
“The Iranians are preparing to go to Geneva with a serious package,” said a former Western diplomat quoted in the report. “These include limits on the numbers of centrifuges operating, enrichment amounts and the need for verification.”
Iran is expected to offer “to stop enriching uranium to levels of 20% purity, which international powers consider dangerously close to a weapons-grade capability,” agree to ship its stockpile of nuclear fuel to a third country for storage, open its nuclear facilities to more thorough international inspections, and close the enrichment facility near Qom.
The offer is set to create some divisions between the US and its Mideast allies — especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who have warned against easing sanctions and making hasty gestures toward the Islamic Republic.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz called Iran’s offers a “joke.”
In a statement released by his office Wednesday morning, Steinitz said that “the so-called gestures offered by Iran [in the report] are a joke. The closure of the Qom facility would mean that, in its first year of nuclear capability, Iran would be able to produce five bombs instead of six, and the limiting of uranium enrichment to 20% is even less significant in a situation where Iran already has 20,000 centrifuges.”
“Israel is ready for a real, serious diplomatic solution which would mean that Iran’s nuclear program would be similar to that of Canada or Mexico,” he added.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor told Army Radio Wednesday morning that the Iranians have been negotiating with the West for years while continuing to strive for a nuclear weapons capability.
“We can’t think that the Iranians, who lied and have been lying since 2003 [about their nuclear program], have suddenly decided to change their ways,” Prosor said.
It’s the sanctions that have pushed them to reach out to the world, and the pressure must be kept up, he added.
The world powers, known as P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, are also somewhat divided in the approach to take with Tehran.
Russia and China have long argued that sanctions should be scaled back, while the UK has urged that Iran first take concrete steps to slow its nuclear drive.
These developments came as relations between the US and Iran have warmed somewhat since both sides made conciliatory gestures ahead of and during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last month, culminating in a historic, 15-minute phone conversation between Rouhani and US President Barack Obama — the first direct contact between the two countries’ presidents in 34 years.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is set to present the package to the P5+1 next week “to kick off what is expected to be an intense new round of negotiations,” according to officials quoted in the report.
Both Zarif and Rouhani have said that Iran will continue to pursue a “peaceful” nuclear program, which the US has indicated could be acceptable under certain conditions to the international community.
The Obama administration’s chief Iran negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, told a Senate hearing last week, “We respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.”
Sherman also urged Congress to give the administration more time to pursue the diplomatic track with Tehran before pushing through more sanctions.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his insistence that any Western deal with Iran must guarantee the removal of all of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges and the cessation of its plutonium production program.
The prime minister also said that talks between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations have thus far proven to be a failure.
“The only tangible result of the P5+1 is that Iran has managed to buy more time and to advance in this time its program to develop nuclear weapons,” he said. “Meanwhile, the Iranian regime continues to plan and conduct terrorism across the globe, including an attempt through its own agencies and its proxies in various countries in Europe: an attempt in Cyprus; a successful murder, unfortunately, in Bulgaria; terrorism across the globe.”
Netanyahu asserted that while Iran was desperate for a reduction in the severity of the international sanctions imposed on its economy, it had no intention of stopping its military nuclear aspirations.
“I think that there’s nothing wrong with diplomacy if it achieves a good deal,” he said. “But a bad deal is worse than no deal. And a bad deal is a partial deal that removes the sanctions, or most of them, and leaves Iran with the capacity to enrich uranium and pursue the plutonium route to nuclear bombs.”