Iran nuclear program hangs in the balance

LONDON, United Kingdom — Twenty-four tense hours remain until Iran reveals whether it will accept or reject an American proposal over its nuclear program even as two new polls show that — six months after electing Barack Obama as U.S. president — more than half of the American public now supports bombarding or invading the Islamic Republic.

The nuclear deal was hammered out between Iranian and American specialists in Vienna, the seat of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and sent to Tehran for ratification. The breakthrough came at the end of a second round of negotiations between Washington and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Some Western diplomats think that Tehran will continue to be obstructive.

“Iran came to the talks highly resistant to the offer (of rapid reductions in uranium stockpiles),” a Western diplomatic source told the Financial Times. “Its delegation came up with a series of proposals about how it might transfer less of the fuel than the U.S. and France are proposing or about removing it at a later date or keeping it in Iran.”

IAEA chief Mohammad el-Baradei was more optimistic, pointing out that “everyone who participated at the meeting was trying to help, trying to look to the future and not to the past, trying to heal the wounds that existed for many, many years.”

“I very much hope that people see the big picture, see that this agreement could open the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the international community,” said el-Baradei.

Exporting up to 90 percent of its uranium stock to Russia for enrichment and France for conversion into plates suitable for medical use is an essential precondition for a deal. Rejecting the deal would strengthen the position of Western hawks who argue that international sanctions on Iran should be strengthened.

A Russian diplomatic source in Europe told GlobalPost that Moscow had no intention of pressuring its Iranian ally by supporting the U.S.-designed sanctions.

“The deal is mostly symbolic,” said Daryl Press, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. “Iran can replace the LEU (nuclear fuel) it is shipping away in three to four months, not the nine to 12 months being described in the media.”

Tehran has shown signs of being willing to compromise in a move that would earn it another 18 months under the terms of the current agreement.

It may also be a sign that its ongoing confrontation with the West “strains Iran’s already weakened credibility at a time when its domestic legitimacy is also called into question after the contested elections of June,” noted Shahram Chubin, a non-proliferation analyst and author of a new report on Iran’s nuclear program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Domestically, people are beginning to question whether the nuclear program is not a narrow partisan project intended to strengthen the grip of hardliners at home, marginalize their political opponents and prevent normalization of relations with the international community.”

So important are the negotiations for Iran that the front page of today’s Kayhan newspaper, a staunchly ideological pro-regime publication, reined in its usually bombastic front page headline for a sober announcement in large black type: LATEST NEWS FROM IRAN’S NUCLEAR NEGOTIATIONS IN VIENNA.

“If they want to make a deal with Iran, France must be removed,” read an analysis on the IRNA state news agency. “No country has as poor [a] past as France when it comes to securing Iran’s nuclear fuel needs,” it added, noting that in 1974 Iran purchased 10 percent of the shares of EURODIF, a French-based consortium producing nuclear materials as part of an early effort by the Shah to enter the nuclear market. In 2006, the French government angered Tehran by freezing its share.

Two new polls found Americans skeptical that diplomacy with Iran will succeed and favoring military action to settle the issue. A Pew Research poll indicated 61 percent of Americans support a military strike while a CNN poll put the number at 54 percent. Almost nine in 10 Americans believe Iran ultimately seeks a nuclear weapon. “There has been a media consensus that Iran is building nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian nuclear program,” said Ahmad Sadri, a chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College and newspaper columnist. “I expect this kind of baseless vilification of Iran to continue in the short run unabated [and] this could have negative consequences for the foreign policy of the U.S. and the interests of Iranians in general.”

Tehran is still feeling the after-effects of the disappearance of Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri who allegedly defected while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. According to French publication Intelligence Online, a German businessman acting as a liaison for the CIA made final arrangements last year for Amiri’s exfiltration in Vienna , site of the current talks. Amiri was there as an advisor to the Iranian representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh.

Soltanieh described Wedenesday's talks with the U.S. as “constructive and successful.” A faithful member of the regime, he was entrusted with holding talks last month with a representative of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission in a secret meeting at Cairo’s Four Seasons hotel, according to Haaretz. Also participating in the taboo-breaking official contact between Iranian and Israeli officials were Arab League, American and European representatives.