Israel warns: Iran just buying time in Kazakhstan

J'lem "skeptical to the extreme" over Iranian claims it is prepared to make offer to major powers in talks on nuclear program.

Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran (photo credit: REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov)
Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov)
Israeli officials on Tuesday dismissed as a “ploy” claims by Iran that it was prepared to make an offer to the major powers during talks in Kazakhstan, after the US proposed limited sanctions relief in return for a halt to the Islamic Republic’s most controversial nuclear work.
Tuesday marked the first meeting in eight months between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – the P5+1. Three rounds of talks last year – in Istanbul, Moscow and Baghdad – led to no progress, and Iran has used the last eight months to expand its uranium enrichment activity.
A second day of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is expected Wednesday.
Although “skeptical in the extreme” that the current round would lead to any progress, Israeli officials were careful not to say that the talks were a mistake or counterproductive.
“The Iranian strategy is clear: to draw out diplomacy and continue to engage, but in parallel to continue enriching uranium,” one official said. “They are engaged in a consistent strategy to draw out the talks. Their ultimate goal is to keep talking, and one day to surprise the world with nuclear tests.”
The official reiterated that for Israel what was important was not the means to the end – that Iran not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons – but rather the end result itself.
With that, he said, diplomacy has so far not been effective, sanctions are not working and the Iranians are galloping ahead despite diplomatic pressure.
Jerusalem, the official said, believes the pressure has to be dramatically upgraded, coupled with convincing the Iranians that there is a credible military option. He said the international community must also clearly state what the “or else” part of the “stop the bomb or else” equation is.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, the new chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, wished the P5+1 luck in their talks with the Iranians.
But, he said, “we have no illusions about Iran’s intentions to drag out the process and waste time.”
Liberman then called for the powers to take “more practical steps” to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“The international community must rely on its experience with North Korea and understand that sanctions alone are not enough,” he said.
With the Islamic Republic’s political elite preoccupied with worsening infighting before a presidential election in June, Israeli officials are not the only ones doubting the meeting will yield a quick breakthrough.
“It is clear that nobody expects to come from Almaty with a fully done deal,” a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who oversees contacts with Iran on behalf of the world powers, said shortly after talks started.
A US official said on Monday that the powers’ updated offer to Iran – a modified version of one rejected by Iran last year – would take into account its recent nuclear advances, but would also take “some steps in the sanctions arena.”
This would address some of Iran’s concerns but not meet tions be lifted, the official said.
In Almaty, a source close to the Iranian negotiating team said on Tuesday that Iran would put up a counterproposal.
“Depending on what proposal we receive from the other side, we will present our own proposal of the same weight,” the source told reporters. “The continuation of talks depends on how this exchange of proposals goes forward.”
At best, diplomats and analysts say, Iran will take the joint offer from the US, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and China seriously and agree to hold further talks soon on practical steps to ease the tension.
“We are looking for flexibility from the Iranians,” said Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann.
But Iran, whose chief negotiator Saeed Jalili is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is a veteran of Iran’s 1980s war against Iraq and the Western powers that backed it, has shown no sign of willingness to scale back its nuclear work. Tehran refuses to close its underground Fordow enrichment plant, a condition the powers have set for any sanctions relief.
A UN nuclear watchdog report last week said Iran was for the first time installing advanced centrifuges that would allow it to significantly speed up its enrichment of uranium, which can have both civilian and military purposes.
Tightening Western sanctions on Iran over the last 14 months are hurting Iran’s economy, slashing oil revenue and driving the currency down, which in turn has pushed up inflation.
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The central bank governor was quoted on Monday as saying Iran’s inflation was likely to top 30 percent in coming weeks as the sanctions contribute to shortages and stockpiling.
But analysts say they are not close to having the crippling effect envisaged by Washington and – so far at least – they have not prompted a change in Iran’s nuclear course.
Israeli officials maintain there is room to “dramatically upgrade” the sanctions.
Western officials said the powers’ offer would include an easing of sanctions on trade in gold and other precious metals if Tehran closes Fordow.
The facility is used for enriching uranium to 20% fissile purity, a short technical step from weapons-grade.
Iran’s stockpile of highergrade uranium has grown to about 167 kg., an increase of roughly 18 kg. since mid- November. While the pile is still approaching the level of 240 kg. that Israel has set as its “red line,” the growth rate has slowed sharply.
The news website Al Monitor said on Tuesday that the powers’ offer could also include some relief for the petrochemical industry and in banking. Officials present in Almaty declined to comment on the report.
The fact that the meeting is taking place in Kazakhstan – which gave up its nuclear arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s – has symbolic resonance. A US official said the Central Asian state could serve as a “role model” for the benefits of making “certain choices.”