Carry on enriching: the Iran talks farce

Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili

Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili

The different views of the outcome of last weekend's talks between the international powers and Iran have already caused a public spat between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama.

Iran's delegation to last Saturday's talks in Istanbul with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1) refused to discuss the specifics of the demand that they curtail their uranium enrichment programme, while the European Union's chief negotiator, Baroness Catherine Ashton, still called the talks "constructive and useful". A second round of talks is to be held in Baghdad next month.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was derisive on Monday, saying at a press conference in Jerusalem that the powers had given the Iranians the "freebie" of another five weeks of unhindered nuclear development.

This led to a tart retort from President Obama, who, while in Colombia, said without mentioning Mr Netanyahu by name that, "the notion that somehow we've given something away or a 'freebie' would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they've got some of the toughest sanctions."

Talks caused a spat between Bibi and Obama

A senior Israeli official said: "We have yet to see any change in the Iranian position and only relentless pressure can achieve that." However, a European diplomat sought to back up the talks, saying: "This was only meant to be a preliminary round, setting out the parameters for the next round, and the Iranians were a lot more forthcoming than in the past."

In public at least, the Iranian side seemed upbeat. "What was discussed in the talks today was an emphasis on our nation's nuclear right, based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty," said Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili.

The outwardly optimistic statements coming out of Istanbul are a thin fa├žade that barely covers the pressure both sides are under. Mr Netanyahu has promised the Obama administration that Israel has yet to decide on an attack and that he is prepared to give limited time for negotiations.

The western negotiators are fully aware that Israel will not be satisfied with less than a verifiable agreement on an end to Iranian enrichment of uranium to the 20 per cent level and a hand-over of the 85kg already enriched. They believe that Israel is seriously considering a strike, which explains their eagerness to emphasise any perceived sign of Iranian flexibility.

In reality, though, the only change in Iran's position is the fact that they are willing to go through the motions of negotiation.

Aside from a few oblique hints, the spokesmen have stuck to their position that Iran demands the right to enrich uranium.

The regime in Tehran is in a quandary. The latest sanctions, especially the one cutting Iran's banking system off from SWIFT money transfers, can cripple the country's already fragile economy, leading to renewed unrest on the streets.

But conceding on uranium enrichment will not only be a loss of face on the international stage at a period when Iran is increasingly feeling isolated. The leadership feel that it would also weaken their hold within Iran.

Last Friday, a team of Iranian scientists observed the failed launch of North Korea's space rocket; both countries are continuing their joint development of long-range ballistic missiles.

But one thing the graduates of the Islamic Revolution know full well is that the Iranian people are not like the subjects of the Kim dynasty, meekly being starved to death for the sake of a nuclear programme.

    Last updated: 4:46pm, April 19 2012