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U.N. nuclear talks in Tehran: frustrated hopes

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By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA | Mon Feb 6, 2012 12:01pm EST

(Reuters) – After two days of rare and intensive talks in Tehran, senior U.N. nuclear officials may have felt they were finally making headway towards getting Iran to address suspicions that it is bent on developing the ability to make atom bombs.

Then, on the evening before the third and final session of last week’s meetings in the Iranian capital, the visiting U.N. nuclear watchdog delegation was handed an envelope that dealt a blow to any hopes of substantive progress.

According to one Vienna-based diplomat briefed on the discussions, it contained a procedural “new work plan” at odds with the nature of the discussions until then, in which the U.N. experts had tried to focus on concrete steps required by Iran.

In the view of Western officials, the Iranian move was further proof of the kind of stalling tactics Tehran has often used during the decade-long dispute over its nuclear program.

“It is delay. It is talks about talks,” a senior Western envoy said about the Iranian negotiating strategy.

The team from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, was forced to use much of the last day of the January 29-31 meeting to push back against the Iranian initiative.

“The agency had to spend a great deal of time getting over Iranian obfuscation,” said another diplomat. “It wasted a lot of time, at least a day.”

Neither Iran nor the IAEA have commented on the Iranian proposal or given details about it.

But it evoked memories among Western diplomats of an ultimately doomed plan agreed between the IAEA and Tehran in 2007 to resolve “outstanding issues” that failed to allay international doubts about Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

By putting forward a new such proposal, they suspect, Iran was trying once again to drag talks out while pressing ahead with nuclear work Western powers fear is aimed at acquiring the means and technologies needed to build atomic bombs.

“The Iranians kept trying to push that ‘work plan’ and the agency was not going to go there. They had some very frank engagement,” the senior envoy said.

Iran’s mission to the IAEA was not reachable for comment. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has described the meeting with the IAEA as “very good,” without elaborating.

A second round of talks has been slated for later this month but Western diplomats hold out little hope that the February 21-22 meeting in Tehran will fare much better than the previous round.

One diplomat said the January negotiations ended with a draft “discussion paper” listing the main points the IAEA wants Iran to answer, especially allegations about possible military dimensions to its uranium enrichment program.

The talks coincide with soaring tension in the long-running row, with the United States and European Union adopting sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports and the Islamic Republic threatening retaliation by closing the main Gulf oil shipping lane.

IRAN UNDER PRESSURE

The outcome of the IAEA’s meetings in Tehran will be scrutinized in Washington, European capitals and Israel for signs of whether Iran’s leadership may finally be prepared to give ground after a decade of pursuing shadowy nuclear development goals, or whether it remains as defiant as ever.

Many fear a downward spiral towards military conflict and rocketing oil prices if diplomacy and sanctions fail to change the Islamic state’s nuclear course.

The Vienna-based IAEA, tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear arms in the world, is pressing Iran to be transparent.

It wants Iran to explain intelligence findings, detailed in an IAEA report in November, about research and development work pointing to nuclear weapons aims, and grant access to sites, documents and people relevant for its investigation.

Iran has indicated readiness for the first time to answer the agency’s questions but also repeatedly dismissed the allegations as baseless and forged.

It says its drive to stockpile enriched uranium is entirely peaceful and aimed at generating electricity using a future network of nuclear power plants.

The deadlock over the IAEA’s suspicion that Iran is looking into “weaponizing” its nuclear activity dates back over three years.

Nackaerts and his team specifically asked last week for access to the Parchin military site near Tehran, without receiving a clear answer from the Iranian side, diplomats said.

The secretive U.N. agency would not comment on the visit beyond a formal statement in which Director General Yukiya Amano said: “The agency is committed to intensifying dialogue. It remains essential to make progress on substantive issues.”

The IAEA said it explained to Iran its “concerns and identified its priorities, which focus on the clarification of possible military dimensions.”

“The IAEA also discussed with Iran the topics and initial steps to be taken, as well as associated modalities,” it said.

Western diplomats said the statement made clear that there had been little progress on substance, but also raised pressure on Iran to deliver tangible results in the next meeting.

Tehran is in the “game of gaining time,” one of them said.

But at least it would be clear who was to blame if the talks failed, he added: “It is going to be Iran’s responsibility.”

The IAEA may also hope that the Iranian side next time will send senior officials such as Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, to the talks.

Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was the main counterpart in the January meeting. While he is a senior nuclear official, the U.N. agency frequently sees him in Vienna.

“There was nothing achieved on this visit and in fact the agency could not get Iran to engage on possible military dimensions questions at all,” the senior Western envoy said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Iran plans more war games in strait as sanctions bite

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By Robin Pomeroy
TEHRAN | Fri Jan 6, 2012 8:03am EST

(Reuters) – Iran announced plans on Friday for new military exercises in the world’s most important oil shipping lane, the latest in weeks of bellicose gestures towards the West as new sanctions threaten Tehran’s oil exports.

Real Admiral Ali Fadavi, naval commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, said exercises next month would focus directly on the Strait of Hormuz, which leads out of the Gulf and provides the outlet for most Mid-East oil.

Iran held a 10-day drill which ended on Monday in neighboring seas.

“Today the Islamic Republic of Iran has full domination over the region and controls all movements within it,” Fadavi said in remarks reported by the Fars news agency.

Iranian officials have threatened in recent weeks to block the strait if new sanctions harm Tehran’s oil exports, and this week said they would take action if the United States sails an aircraft carrier through it.

The United States, which has a massive naval fleet in the area that is overwhelmingly more powerful than Iran’s sea forces, says it will ensure the international waters of the strait stay open. Britain said on Thursday that any attempt to close it would be illegal and unsuccessful.

New financial sanctions signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on New Year’s Eve are aimed at making it difficult for most countries to buy Iranian oil. The European Union is expected to announce tough measures of its own at the end of the month.

Most traders believe Iran will still be able to find buyers, at least in the short term, for its exports of 2.6 million barrels of oil per day (bpd). But it may have to offer steep discounts that reduce the hard currency revenue it needs to feed its 74 million people.

The sanctions are already having an effect on Iran’s streets, where prices have been rising and the rial currency is falling. Iranians have been queuing up at banks to convert their savings into dollars.

The economic hardship comes less than two months before a parliamentary election, Iran’s first since a 2009 presidential election that led to mass street protests across the country.

Iran’s rulers successfully put down those demonstrations two years ago with force, but since then the Arab Spring has shown the vulnerability of authoritarian governments in the region to public protest fueled by anger over economic hardship.

NUCLEAR PROGRAMME

Washington and its allies are imposing the measures to force Iran to abandon a nuclear program which they say is aimed at producing an atomic bomb. Iran says the program is peaceful.

European Union officials say the EU, which collectively buys about 500,000 bpd of Iranian oil, rivaling China as the largest market, has agreed to impose an embargo halting all imports.

EU diplomats said they are discussing how long they will give member countries to halt purchases, with France, Germany and others wanting the ban imposed within three months but Greece favoring a grace period of up to a year.

China has also cut its imports by more than half in January and February while haggling with Tehran over the size of the discount it wants in return for doing business with it.

Other big buyers, including Turkey and Japan, say they are seeking a waiver from the U.S. sanctions.

The new American law allows Obama to give temporary waivers to allies to continue to buy Iranian oil to prevent a price shock, but to receive the permits, countries are meant to show they are reducing trade with Iran.

Iran has put on a brave face over the sanctions. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Thursday the country would “weather the storm.”

“Iran, with divine assistance, has always been ready to counter such hostile actions and we are not concerned at all about the sanctions,” he told a news conference.

But in a sign it is seeking to alleviate the pressure, Salehi said Tehran was interested in resuming negotiations over its nuclear program with Western powers.

Turkey’s visiting foreign minister brought an offer from Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who negotiates on behalf of major powers.

Talks over Iran’s nuclear program collapsed a year ago. Iran has repeatedly offered to restart the talks since then, but has insisted it will not negotiate over its right to continue enriching uranium.

Western countries say talks are pointless unless a halt to enrichment is on the table. Enriched uranium can be used to fuel a reactor or build a bomb.

OIL PRICES IN SPOTLIGHT

After years of sanctions that had little impact, Western countries have adopted a far more direct approach in recent months, with sanctions that explicitly impact the oil industry that provides 60 percent of Iran’s economy.

The new U.S. measures would cut off any institution that deals with the Iranian central bank from the U.S. financial system. If implemented fully, it would make it impossible for most countries’ refineries to buy Iranian crude.

But Washington has to balance its determination to isolate Tehran with concern that driving its oil off markets will raise prices and hurt the fragile global economy. Brent crude futures hovered above $113 a barrel on Friday, up nearly $7 since Obama signed the new sanctions law.

To ease the impact on markets, the new U.S. measures take effect over several months, and the leeway given to Obama to offer waivers allows countries time to find other suppliers. Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a foe of Iran, says it will make up for any supply shortfall.

Traders and analysts believe it is unlikely Iran will actually carry out its threats to block the strait.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group. “Neither side wants a war. A lot of this rhetoric is overstated.”

Even if it tried, Iran could not blockade the strait for long in a direct challenge to a U.S. fleet led by the giant supercarrier John C. Stennis, accompanied by a guided-missile cruiser and flotillas of destroyers and submarines.

The Combined Maritime Force protecting Gulf shipping also includes other countries such Britain, France, Canada, Australia and the Gulf Arab states, under the command of a U.S. admiral.

Still, Iran has many ways it could provoke a Western response, from missiles within range of U.S. targets in the region, to small boats that could attack a ship near shore, to allied militia in Palestine and Lebanon that can strike Israel.

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