US said weighing deal to let Iran continue enriching uranium

Move would put US at odds with Israel, Arab states at the start of P5+1 talks; Ashton says sides in Geneva ‘have sense of determination’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Barack Obama is considering letting Iran keep uranium-enrichment facilities in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, a move that would bring the Washington closer to Iranian demands but likely widen the gap between the White House and American allies in the region, including Israel. The newspaper did not provide a source for the claim.

The report comes as six world powers, known as the P5+1, will meet with Iranian officials Tuesday in Geneva to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program for the first time since the election of Iranian president Hasan Rouhani.

Maintaining enrichment facilities is a key Iranian demand, but American allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Gulf states, oppose Iran being allowed to keep its enrichment capacity. Speaking at the opening of the Knesset Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to keep the pressure on Iran and not compromise on uranium enrichment.

“Iran can quickly enrich uranium at 3.5 percent to 90 percent — which is necessary for a nuclear weapon,” he said. “Iran is currently willing to give up on 20 percent [enrichment] — which is no longer important, in exchange for serious easing of sanctions. International pressure is what led to the internal changes in Iran and brought them to a position of making any concessions.”

The White House position has been unclear to this point. Obama recently recognized Iran’s right to nuclear energy, but he hasn’t said enrichment is acceptable in Iran, as Tehran demands.

Administration officials were similarly vague on the enrichment question. “We are prepared to talk about what President Obama said in his address at the UN General Assembly, and that is that he respects the rights of the Iranian people to access a peaceful nuclear program,” an anonymous senior American negotiator told the Wall Street Journal. “What that is is a matter of discussion.”

Leading US senators demand Iran end all uranium enrichment. In a letter to Obama Monday, six Democrats and four Republicans supported this week’s negotiations, while insisting Iran shouldn’t be allowed to continue enriching uranium inside Iran.

“If the Iranian government takes these steps in a verifiable and transparent manner, we are willing to match Iran’s good-faith actions by suspending the implementation of the next round of sanctions currently under consideration by the Congress,” they said in the letter.

On Sunday, the Islamic Republic drew the line at shipping its enriched uranium to another country.

Demands to reduce enrichment instead of stopping it implicitly recognize Iran’s right to enrich for peaceful purposes. That already is a victory for Tehran, considering talks began 10 years ago with the international community calling on the Islamic Republic to mothball its enrichment program.

“It’s pretty clear that Iran will have to be allowed some degree of enrichment,” said former U.S. State Department official Mark Fitzpatrick, who now is a director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But the enrichment has to be limited.”

The P5+1 — The US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany — will meet for two days in Geneva with Iran with the hopes of working out a deal after several years of failed attempts at diplomacy.

Officials have expressed cautious optimism that the sides can come to an agreement that would see sanctions on Iran lifted within a year, though on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry indicated the US would not take a bad deal over no deal.

EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton said Tuesday that the sides were at the talks “with a real sense of determination.”

“I hope that what we will have here is a very productive two days, an opportunity to explore both the proposals that we have put on the table, but also ideas that are coming from Iran,” she said in a statement before the talks kicked off. “I hope that in the course of that time, there will be an opportunity to really go into the details and to explore the possibilities.”

Iran’s probable strategy during the talks recently came to light. A document — “Program for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a Rouhani Government” — was released by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in August, indicating that Tehran’s likely strategy is to separate and isolate the United States from its European allies in the P5+1 in order to break the international consensus enforcing strict sanctions on Iran.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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