(Updates with comments from former U.S. official from ninth paragraph.)
Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Iran’s offer to negotiate a deal on its suspected nuclear weapons program with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany, is being met with skepticism.
Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s former foreign minister and now its top nuclear negotiator, said yesterday in Vienna that his country “will facilitate the resolution of this issue if the other side is willing.”
Iranian President Hassan Rohani is ready to decommission the Fordo uranium enrichment facility in exchange for an easing of international economic sanctions, the German news outlet Der Spiegel reported yesterday, citing unidentified intelligence officials.
While Iran says its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes, the U.S. and its allies say Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Decommissioning Fordo would be “a good sign, but if they expect sanctions to be lifted in the short term, they are deluding themselves,” said David Albright, a former nuclear inspector and the president of ISIS. “Iran will be looking at how little they can try and do to get sanction relief.”
Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have said they want a “win-win” result from negotiations with the IAEA and the P5+1 -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., plus Germany.
Iran has “a commitment to work toward a win-win solution for the nuclear issue,” said Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman at Iran’s United Nations mission in New York. “Of course, the technical details should be discussed during the negotiations.”
After eight years of bellicose statements from former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other officials, Western analysts are uncertain what the less confrontational Rohani can do, in part because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ultimate authority over the country’s nuclear program.
Iranian officials believe “the position that we’ve stuck with from day one is that Iran should give up a lot in terms of putting caps on its enrichment program or going to zero enrichment, reducing its activities everywhere, giving all kinds of pledges of heightened access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, in return for the promise of a marginal improvement in their sanctions situation,” said Gary Sick, a member of the U.S. National Security Council under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
They “don’t see that as a good deal,” Sick said in an interview with the Council of Foreign Relations published yesterday. “Clearly, we’re going to have to give some, and they’re going to have to give some.”
Fordo, buried in a mountain near the city of Qom, the religious center of the country, began operating in late 2011. The facility is designed to hold 3,000 centrifuges, according to the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
Even if Iran did close Fordo, the country’s stockpile of low- and medium-enriched uranium and the 18,000 centrifuges installed at another enrichment plant near Natanz would allow it to make highly enriched fuel for nuclear weapons, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“While this is a welcome first step by President Rohani, and should be reciprocated with some sanctions relief, it is not nearly sufficient to warrant the lifting of the toughest Western sanctions,” said Dubowitz, who has advised Congress and the Obama administration on adopting increasingly tough sanctions.
Iran must put its nuclear program under international control, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow yesterday. The new Iranian leadership’s commitment to dialogue is “welcome,” Lavrov said.
“We are more interested in actions, not words,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Regev said the diplomatic pressure on Iran should be increased together with a “credible military threat” until the Islamic Republic ceases all uranium enrichment, removes all enriched material from its territory, closes what he called its “illegal” uranium enrichment plant at Fordo and halts all plutonium production.
Diplomats from the IAEA’s 159 member nations are meeting this week in Vienna. Iran, in its 11th year of a UN effort to inspect its nuclear program, reiterated that while it won’t give up its right to enrich uranium, it’s prepared to increase cooperation with monitors.
Iran is ready “for a more constructive” relationship with the IAEA, said Salehi, saying that his country wants the body to take a more active role in stopping cyber-attacks against nuclear facilities. The Stuxnet computer worm attacked the control systems of Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010.
“They say that they really don’t want nuclear weapons. We should take them at their word,” said Sick in the CFR interview. “So let’s figure out how you can satisfy us that you don’t want nuclear weapons,” he said, advocating “a private meeting” between the U.S. and Iran “without all the glare of publicity.”
UN nuclear inspectors are scheduled to meet with their Iranian counterparts Sept. 27 in Vienna for negotiations over gaining wider access to suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.
--With assistance from Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington and Ladane Nasseri in Dubai. Editors: John Walcott, Larry Liebert