Kerry: Window of diplomacy with Iran is 'cracking open,' but US still mindful of Israel

US Secretary of State John Kerry assures Israel advocacy group, AIPAC that US's "eyes are open" in Iran discussions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry in Afghanistan 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail)
US Secretary of State John Kerry in Afghanistan 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail)
US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was hopeful that the “window for diplomacy is cracking open with Iran,” even as he assured American Jews that his government would take Israel’s security needs into account.
Kerry spoke on Sunday via satellite from London to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that is holding a two-day summit in California.
“But I want you to know that our eyes are open, too. While we seek a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear program, words must be matched with actions,” Kerry said. “In any engagement with Iran, we are mindful of Israel’s security needs.”
An Israeli official, however, warned on Sunday that Iran’s latest refusal to send out of the country its enriched uranium – used for the production of nuclear weapons – showed that Tehran was continuing with its weapons program.
In advance of the six-party talks in Geneva scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, which aim to find a diplomatic solution to prevent a nuclear Iran, Tehran signaled that it could be flexible on some of its atomic activities.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, who will participate in the Geneva talks, told his country’s state television on Sunday, “Of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line.”
Israel has insisted that Iran must remove all enriched uranium from its country and dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities.
Jerusalem fears that the international community will be assuaged by a conciliatory tone out of Tehran and, as a trust-building measure, would ease some of the economic sanctions against Iran.
Israel believes that Iran has been placating the West in the last few months as a result of the sanctions, and that the international community should continue to pressure Tehran economically until it dismantles its nuclear weapons program.
In advance of the Geneva talks, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has spoken with international leaders such as French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. He has given many interviews to the international media.
“The prime minister said all along that Iran will try to come along with ‘cosmetic concessions’ that appear to be of significance, but that actually in no way prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons,” an Israeli official said on Sunday.
“This is a game Iran is playing,” the official said.
He added that over the next few days, Netanyahu would be “working the phones” to get his message out.
Netanyahu is expected to address the issue of Iran when he speaks before the Knesset plenum on Monday at the start of its opening session.
Kerry discussed Iran on Sunday when he met in London with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
As of Sunday night, Kerry was not expected to attend the six-power talks that include the US, China, Germany, France, Great Britain and Russia.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman led a delegation of officials that headed to Geneva on Sunday to participate in the talks.
The US team includes James Timbie, senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security; Puneet Talwar, senior director for Iran, Iraq and the Gulf States on the White House national security staff; and Richard Nephew, principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department, a US official said.
The talks will be the first since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has tried to improve relations with the West to pave the way for lifting economic sanctions.
Rouhani’s election in June to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has raised hopes of a negotiated solution to a decade-old dispute over Iran’s nuclear program that could otherwise trigger a new war in the volatile Middle East.
Araqchi’s comments on Sunday may disappoint Western officials, who want Iran to ship out uranium enriched to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, a short technical step away from weapons-grade material.
However, Araqchi was less hardline about other areas of uranium enrichment, which Tehran says is for peaceful nuclear fuel purposes but the West fears may be aimed at developing nuclear weapons capability.
In negotiations since early 2012, world powers have demanded that Iran suspend 20% enrichment, send some of its existing uranium stockpiles abroad and shutter the Fordow underground site, where most higher-grade enrichment is done.
In return, they offered to lift sanctions on trade in gold, precious metals and petrochemicals, but Iran – which wants oil and banking restrictions to be removed – has dismissed that offer. It says it needs 20%-enriched uranium for a medical research reactor.
However, Araqchi’s statement may be “the usual pre-negotiation posturing,” according to Middle East specialist Shashank Joshi at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“It is easy to imagine a compromise whereby Iran would ship out only some of its uranium, allowing the negotiating team to claim a victory. There are many potential compromises that will be explored,” Joshi said.
Cliff Kupchan, a director and Middle East analyst at consulting firm Eurasia Group, took a similar line, saying Iran was seeking to gain leverage ahead of negotiations.
“Still, it is sobering that a lead Iranian negotiator is setting redlines so early. These are going to be tough talks.”
Since the Islamic Republic started making 20%-enriched uranium gas in 2010, it has produced more than the 240-250 kg. needed for one atomic bomb, which Israel has suggested may provoke it to take military action against Tehran.
Iran has kept its stockpile below this figure by converting some of it into oxide powder for reactor fuel, potentially buying more time for diplomacy, UN watchdog reports show.
But it has also amassed stocks of low-enriched uranium gas that experts say would be enough for several bombs if processed much further to weapons-grade material.
It has also sharply expanded its enrichment capacity in recent years.
Western experts acknowledge it may no longer be realistic to expect Iran to suspend all such work, as demanded by a series of UN Security Council resolutions since 2006.
Instead, they say, Iran’s enrichment capacity should be scaled back in order to make it more difficult for the country to launch any weapons bid without being detected in time.
R. Scott Kemp, an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that merely capping Iran’s nuclear program was unlikely to provide enough confidence in the West.
“Some rollback of the really the only path to confidence and stability,” Kemp wrote in a blog last week.
David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security think tank, told a US Senate committee in early October, referring to machines used to refine uranium: “Any future nuclear agreement must include a limit on the number and type of centrifuges Iran can install.”
Reuters contributed to this report.