US and Iranian Nuclear Experts to Discuss Natanz in Geneva

Sending the United States’ third-ranking diplomat over the weekend to Geneva to hear Iran’s response to the six-powers’ sweetened incentives package does not necessarily mean that the White House has gone soft on its demand for Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment as the price for direct talks with Washington.

The Washington announcement said: Under Secretary of State William Burns would be there “to listen, not to negotiate.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources confirm this, because his party will secretly include a US Energy Department team, which has competence for dealing nuclear issues. It is this group that will get down to brass tacks with its Iranian counterparts behind the scenes, while Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili is talking to European Union external executive Javier Solana on the incentives devised by five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany.

These perks are essentially built around the “freeze for freeze” proposition (see DEBKANet-Weekly 355 of July 4: Freeze-for-Freeze” Is Iran’s Current Buzz Phrase), which would be limited in time, and under which Iran would not increase its uranium enrichment activities and the six powers would not seek more sanctions. Meanwhile, the two sides would work out the shape of further negotiations.

The American Energy Department officials will be there to discuss applying the freeze to the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, our sources report.

As a further sweetener, the previously-reported proposal by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to establish an interest section for American diplomats in Tehran soon will be left dangling as a lure. Rice explained last month that the first US diplomatic presence in Tehran after 30 years was under consideration “to reach out to the Iranian people” and save them having to travel to Dubai for US visas.


Bush intent on blazing diplomatic path for his successor


The next move, an embassy, would reward good progress in the face-to-face talks with Iran, or be left as a viable option for the next US president.

The state of the US-Iran dialogue, both the secret and formal levels, is analogous to the point reached in the nuclear talks with North Korea in 2005-2006, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report. Then, too, the Bush administration engaged North Korea in direct talks only in the final stages of the six-power effort to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Racing for a diplomatic success, the Bush administration forgave Kim Jong II‘s wiles and mystifications, chiefly over his nuclear arsenal and plutonium stock, and his refusal to clarify Pyongyang’s poliferative relations with Damascus. The clerics of Tehran, with whom US representatives have been engaged in quiet diplomacy for some weeks, are likely to prove even dodgier and demand still more leeway than North Korea before Washington wins a diplomatic breakthrough.

President George W. Bush’s transformation from hawk to dedicated diplomatist owes much to his aspiration to blaze a path for direct diplomacy which his successor will have to follow, be he the Republican John McCain or the Democrat Barack Obama – as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 354 first revealed on June 27 (Secret US-Iran Talks: Bush Pulls the Diplomacy Carpet from under Obama).

Barack Obama, for his part, has executed a centrist somersault on foreign policy, so that the ground between him and his Republican rival is shrinking. The president is meanwhile jumping the gun on Obama’s direct diplomacy strategy and handing it to McCain after the fact.


Bush hopes he can beat Obama’s 16-month Iraq deadline


Tuesday, July 15, Obama said in a major foreign policy speeech he would be willing to use “all elements” of US power to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.

He appeared to be referring to sanctions, on the one hand, and the threat of military force, on the other, to bring Tehran around to relinquishing its nuclear weapons plans.

The administration’s announcement of the William Burns mission followed within hours, raising its secret tete-a-tete with Tehran to the surface.

Monday, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a surprisingly mild statement that in certain conditions he had no objection to meeting American representatives for direct negotiations without, of course, giving up Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

Again, Bush stole Obama’s thunder by reaching secret understandings with Tehran on Iraq, oil pricing, Lebanon, Hizballah and Syria. In Afghanistan, the war situation is deteriorating.

The Democratic candidate emphasized that while he is open to tactical adjustments, the 16-month timetable to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq remains his goal. He said their disagreement on Iraq [with McCain] was indicative of a different appraoch to diplomacy and nationaly secuity.

But Bush beat him to the draw.

His secret talks with Iran are laying the foundations for an American withdrawal from Iraq before the 16-month deadline. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq sources report that, if the Iranians continue to hold the lid down on rogue Shiite militias in Iraq and pass intelligence about al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to the US military, a large part of the American army can be withdrawn by early 2010 or sooner.

The understandings reached so far in the secret US-Iraniani face-to-face talks are aimed at leaving a diplomatic track for Bush’s successor to continue. In the months remaining to him in the White House, he will almost certainly continue to upgrade the secret exchanges until they unfold into an official, direct public dialogue, ready for McCain to embrace and impossible for Obama to repudiate.


Burns mission signals another step back from military option


By sending the Burns delegation to Geneva, the administration sent Tehran two strong signals:

1. America has taken another step back from exercising its military option against Iran’s nuclear program. It has distanced itself from the Israeli position which insists on the Iranian nuclear program being dismantled by hook or by crook, including military means.

Israel has been cut adrift to contend with Iran alone, not only on the nuclear question but also on the other pressuing security issues besetting it, Hizballah, Syria and a government in Beirut dominated by Tehran and Damascus.

Israel can no longer count on American backing as a key traditional component of its national security and deterrent strength.

2. Washington has departed from another traditional policy position, its refusal to permit the interlinkage of the nuclear Iran controversy with Iraq and Afghanistan. Allowing their interface in discourse with Tehran elevates the Islamic Republic to the rank of regional power and gives it leverage in a broad gamut of the most sensitive international issues of the day.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts predict that rapid progress in US-Iran nuclear talks will generate speedy advances for cooperation in Iraq. In other words, the attainment of a nuclear deal with Tehran on the lines of the Washington-Pyongyang accord would carry the two powers to an understanding for carving out regions of influence in Iraq, including Baghdad.

Such an accord would relieve large numbers of US soldiers fighting in Iraq today for service against al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.

On this issue, Obama said Tuesday: “By many measures, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.” He promised: “As president, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.”


Road to understandings with Iran still bumpy


Armed with foreknowledge of the president’s progress on Iraq and its potential impact on the Afghan War, McCain was able to riposte:

“Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades. Thanks to the success of the surge [in Iraq], these forces are becoming available, and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them.”

The road towards the US-Iranian understandings has been and may still be bumpy. This week, for instance, US forces in iraq announced the capture of the leader of an “al Qaeda bombing ring affiliated with Hizballah”, who is believed to have been trained in Iran in the use of explosives and running a bombing network in Baghdad.

The poisonous combination of the Shiite Hizballah, al Qaeda which treats them as infidels and Iran, is an example of how Tehran’s machinations work.

Therefore, no one is under any illusion that the heart-to-heart talks and understandings on Iraq between Washington and Tehran will produce an instant halt to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorists fighting US forces in Iraq.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources expect Iran to simply exercise more caution and make sure not to be caught operating directly against the Americans. The Islamic Republic will act through its habitual tools, Hizballah and rogue Shiite elements and also call on the services of Al Qaeda, which is in bad enough shape to accept any hand extended for fighting Americans.

At the diplomatic level, meanwhile, Tehran will promote its drive to turn its face-to-face talks with the American into a fulcrum for reaching a whole range of Middle East objectives, such as the recognition of Hizballah’s pre-eminent political standing in Lebanon. The Iranians see no reason why if they and the Americans can agree on influence-sharing in Iraq, similar arrangements cannot be applied in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority.

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