Obama administration ready for Iran talks but is Iran

The Obama administration has its Iran ducks in a row: Tehran is coming to the table, Israel is sitting still, most of the world’s major oil buyers and sellers are on board with the sanctions effort, and Congress is in an agreeable mood.

Ducks, though, have a tendency to wander off. Iran might not stay at the table, or it might offer delaying tactics that peel off support for sanctions by U.S. allies. Israeli leaders are skittish about alleged Obama administration leaks that they believe are aimed at heading off an Israeli military response. Republicans in Congress, while pleasantly surprised at the administration’s diligence at keeping to the sanctions timeline, are worried that the administration could offer too much at the talks.

Iran is not likely to deliver the concessions that the United States is likely to seek, said Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank that often consults with government.

“There is a perception among Iran’s leaders … that if Iran makes compromises under pressure, it makes Iran looks weak,” he said.

A heavy water nuclear reactor near Arak, Iran photo/wikipedia commons

Iran is ready for talks in Istanbul on Friday, April 13 with the world’s major powers, including the United States, on its nuclear program. It is not clear what the U.S. bottom line is, but Obama administration officials repeatedly have said they will not ease the sanctions until Iran meets criteria set by the U.N. Security Council to make its nuclear program transparent.

The U.S. demands, according to reports, are that Iran stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level. That figure is short of the 85 percent enrichment level needed for weapons grade, but it is close enough to raise concern. The U.S. also will reportedly demand that Iran shut down its underground nuclear facility near Qom.

The United States would allow Iran to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent for medical purposes, according to the reports, and would agree to halt planned new sanctions in the congressional pipeline that would further isolate Iranian financial institutions.

That approach would not be enough to keep the Iranians at the table, according to Trita Parsi, the director of the National Iranian American Council, and it could push away major powers that until now have followed the Obama administration’s lead.

“This package is a nonstarter to most observers,” Parsi wrote on the Huffington Post.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s former top Iran adviser who still consults with the White House, suggested last week that the U.S. might soften one critical additional piece of the sanctions should Iran comply with the demands on the Qom site and enrichment.

“If Iran were to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, ship out the material it has already enriched to that level and deactivate the Fordow facility near Qom, that would probably be sufficient,” he said in an analysis distributed by the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, where he now works. “Here again, the question is what Iran would seek in return. Lifting the Central Bank sanctions would probably be the minimum it would require.”

That prospect alarms Senate Republicans who until now have been impressed with Obama’s implementation of the sanctions regime.

Republicans — and likely some Democrats, as well — would be “looking for a full suspension of all enrichment capabilities,” said a Republican Senate aide involved in the sanctions legislation talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met last month with Obama, told the White House and congressional leaders that he had not yet come to a decision on whether to strike, and would hold off while he assesses how Obama’s diplomacy and sanctions regime are working.

The pledge appears to be holding, although Israeli government officials are displeased with what they see as Obama administration leaks about Israel’s capacity to strike Iran. Among the revelations that have alarmed Israeli officials was a story in Foreign Policy last month that reported on alleged Israeli dealings with Azerbaijan, as well as American intelligence speculation that Israel planned to use the Caucasus nation as a refueling ground for a strike.

Ron Ben Yishai, a senior military analyst, wrote in the daily paper Yediot Achronot that such leaks would “make it more difficult for Israeli decision-makers to order the IDF to carry out a strike, and what’s even graver, [would] erode the IDF’s capacity to launch such strike with minimal casualties.”

A White House insider denied that the leaks were part of a campaign, noting that rogue leaks from the intelligence community have been commonplace under multiple administrations.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.