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US, Iran inching toward talks

By M. K. Bhadrakumar, Asia Times Online, Feb. 18, 2012

The foreplay is nearing completion on the Iran situation. The surest sign is that there were no serious takers in Western capitals for the Israeli smear campaign this week that Tehran's agents had been going about placing bombs in New Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok. Simply put, there is growing impatience that it is way past the time for histrionics.

Several indicators are available that matters are moving towards a substantive plane. One cluster of events this week consists of the Iranian reply to the letter from the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, penned by Tehran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Simultaneously, Tehran announced it was developing a new generation of centrifuges and augmenting its number of centrifuges from 6,000 to 9,000 as well as loading a research reactor with Iran's first batch of domestically produced fuel.

While Tehran's announcement of new nuclear "achievements" might have appeared as a belligerent move - Washington derided it as "hype" meant for the domestic audience in Iran - the contents of Jalili's letter, and, more important, the initial responses of cautious optimism it generated within hours in Western capitals convey that there are positive stirrings in the air.

The reaction in Washington is particularly noteworthy [....]

Read the full article at http://atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/NB18Ak02.html

U.S., EU welcome Iran nuclear letter, suggest talks
By Andrew Quinn and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON | Fri Feb 17, 2012 10:40pm EST

(Reuters) - The United States and European Union expressed cautious optimism on Friday over prospects that Iran may be willing to engage major powers in new talks, but underscored any resumed negotiations must be sustained and focus on the nuclear issue.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters that Iran's recent letter to Ashton might mark a step forward.

"We think this is an important step and we welcome the letter," Clinton said in a joint meeting with Ashton. She stressed that the major powers were still reviewing their formal response to Tehran's offer.

Ashton, who handles contact with Iran on behalf of the "P5+1" group comprised of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, said the letter showed "a potential possibility that Iran may be ready to start talks."

Iran's letter to Ashton, which was obtained by Reuters on Thursday, proposed resuming the stalled talks and said Tehran would have "new initiatives" to bring to the table [....]

Looks to me like that letter just might have something to do with this deadline:

Global clearinghouse ready to evict Iranian banks
By Anne Gearan and Slobodan Lekic, Associated Press, Feb. 17, 2012|

A financial clearinghouse used by virtually every country and major corporation in the world agreed Friday to shut out Iran from its respected network, an unprecedented escalation of global economic pressure to halt Iran’s suspected drive for nuclear weapons.

Quicker than a succession of slow-acting economic sanctions, expelling Iran from the banking hub could put a sudden choke hold on its oil-dependent economy. The move was made under strong pressure from the United States and the European Union, which are looking for ways to derail Iran’s nuclear program quickly without a military strike [....]
 


Banking's SWIFT says ready to block Iran transactions
By Philip Blenkinsop and Rachelle Younglai
BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON | Fri Feb 17, 2012 6:23pm EST

(Reuters) - Belgium-based SWIFT, which provides banks with a system for moving funds around the world, bowed to international pressure on Friday and said it was ready to block Iranian banks from using its network to transfer money.

Expelling Iranian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication would shut down Tehran's main avenue to doing business with the rest of the world - an outcome the West believes is crucial to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

SWIFT, which has never cut off a country before, has been closely following efforts in the United States and the European Union to develop new sanctions targeting Iran that would directly affect EU-based financial institutions [....]

 

Could U.S. Accept Iran Having Some Nuclear Technology?
PBSNewsHour on Feb 17, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the world's major powers are reviewing a formal response to a letter from Iran suggesting serious interest in talks about the country's nuclear program. Ray Suarez discusses the possibility of talks with the Council on Foreign Relations' Ray Takeyh and Flynt Leverett of RaceforIran.com.

(video, transcript and mp3 all available)

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june12/iran_02-17.html

I read Panetta's testimony to the House committee and Clapper's to the Senate exactly the way Bhadrakumar does. When both the defense secretary and the intelligence chief state categorically that Iran has not yet decided to develop a nuclear weapon, that means it does NOT have a nuclear-weapon program. Contra what Netanyahu and his clique keep screaming.

What it comes down to is this: As Panetta says, "We (the U.S.) will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon." (Which Iran's supreme leader has stated it does not intend to do.) Israel's position is very different: Iran must be denied the right that it has under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium. (Which every Iranian leader insists it will continue to do.)

What everyone understands, I think, is that neither sanctions nor negotiations are going to get Iran to surrender its NPT rights. Joe Biden, who is as pro-Israel as anyone in the White House or Congress, conceded as much at least two years ago, saying under any negotiated deal, Iran will continue to enrich. Which is why Netanyahu is panicking over the chance that U.S.-Iran talks will succeed.

There's been concerted pushback since Panetta and Clapper spoke:

http://thechronicleherald.ca/world/64707-iran-poised-expand-nuclear-program

Personally, I'd listen to Panetta and Clapper on what U.S. intelligence has concluded over what Jahn hears from unnamed "senior diplomats." These guys are not speaking off the cuff; they are delivering their government's officially scripted position (most likely Israeli or Saudi). Caveat lector. 

what U.S. intelligence has concluded

Anonymice speaking out on that, and I would note the timing of this confirmation--after the IAEA report, qualifying/countering it, and before Netanyahu's visit:

U.S. Agencies See No Move by Iran to Build a Bomb
By James Risen and Mark Mazetti, New York Times, February 24, 2012

WASHINGTON — Even as the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said that Iran had accelerated its uranium enrichment program, American intelligence analysts continue to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.

Recent assessments by American spy agencies are broadly consistent with a 2007 intelligence finding that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier, according to current and former American officials. The officials said that assessment was largely reaffirmed in a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, and that it remains the consensus view of America’s 16 intelligence agencies.

At the center of the debate is the murky question of the ultimate ambitions of the leaders in Tehran. There is no dispute among American, Israeli and European intelligence officials that Iran has been enriching nuclear fuel and developing some necessary infrastructure to become a nuclear power. But the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies believe that Iran has yet to decide whether to resume a parallel program to design a nuclear warhead — a program they believe was essentially halted in 2003 and which would be necessary for Iran to build a nuclear bomb [....]

Upon seeing James Risen's byline on the article, I thought that I hadn't seen it in quite some time, so I did a search on NYT, and the last time was August. So looks to me like he was pulled away from whatever he's been doing, whether editorial duties or sabbatical or whatever, to take this message, i.e. the "officials" wanted to talk to him, not anyone else.

Oh I forgot about this, it sort of throws my speculation about the Risen byline under a totally different light:

Subpoena Issued to Writer in C.I.A.-Iran Leak Case
By Charlie Savage, New York Times, May 24, 2011

WASHINGTON — With the approval of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., federal prosecutors are trying to force the author of a book on the C.I.A. to testify at a criminal trial about who leaked information to him about the agency’s effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program at the end of the Clinton administration.

The writer, James Risen, a reporter at The New York Times, was served with a subpoena on Monday, ordering him to testify at the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer. Mr. Sterling was charged this year as part of a wider Obama administration crackdown on officials accused of disclosing restricted information to journalists.

The subpoena tells Mr. Risen that “you are commanded” to appear at federal district court in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 12 to testify in the case. A federal district judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, quashed a similar subpoena to Mr. Risen last year, when prosecutors were trying to persuade a grand jury to indict Mr. Sterling.

Mr. Risen said he would ask the judge to quash the new subpoena, too.

“I am going to fight this subpoena,” he said. “I will always protect my sources, and I think this is a fight about the First Amendment and the freedom of the press.” [....]

Tom Ricks has been talking with a mouse, too, a short "must read":

So I ran into a friend who knows a lot about U.S. policy and Iran. We sat down on a park bench and this is what he told me:

continued at

'It is not in the American national interest to go to war against Iran anytime soon'
By Thomas E. Ricks, Best Defense @ foreignpolicy.com, Feb. 24, 2012 - 10:23 AM

 

'19% of Israelis support non-US-backed Iran strike'
By JPOST.COM STAFF 02/29/2012 17:49

Poll finds vast majority of Israelis against unilateral military strike on Iran, Israeli Jews prefer Obama over all republican rivals.

http://www.jpost.com/IranianThreat/News/Article.aspx?id=259889

Despite blogosphere fear mongering, right wing hype, and any Netanyahu admin hype forthcoming in the near future, I feel pretty safe betting that it's not going to happen. It's all bluster. All parties involved like having a great number of people believe it's going to happen, indeed want enough people to believe it and aren't going to go out of their way to dissuade them from believing that it's going to happen, so that Iran too isn't 100% sure, but it's still not going to happen.

Obama Offers Israel a Path to Avoid an Iran War, but Will Netanyahu Buy Its Terms?

Strong summary piece on what's going on on this front,
by Tony Karon @ Global Spin @ Time Magazine, March 2, 2012:

 

[....] General James Mattis, the head of Centcom, [....] in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday [....] also sounded quite dovish on Iran. "…[T]he best we can do…is to delay them. Only the Iranian people can stop this program."

I was also struck that General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in his own Senate testimony yesterday commented that Syria's air defense system is "approximately five times" more sophisticated than those NATO aircraft faced in Libya.

Is that called burying the lede?

from

Thomas E. Ricks, March 8 @ ForeignPolicy.com, J. Wing claims Iraq is not getting more violent, but J. Mattis sounds not so sure

Also see

Iran Watch: Bibi's Iran stopwatch by Uri Friedman @ ForeignPolicy.com, March 9, where he has set his "Iran Watch" at Natanz  to worry about.

Three updates of import on topic:

Iran cut off from global financial system (SWIFT) today
By Don Melvin, Associated Press, Updated 10:13 a.m., Thursday, March 15, 2012

BRUSSELS (AP) — Iran was largely cut off from global commerce on Thursday, when the company that handles financial transactions said it was severing ties with many Iranian banks — part of an international effort to discourage Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

The action is meant to enforce European Union sanctions, as global financial transactions are impossible without using SWIFT, and will go a long way toward isolating Iran financially [.....]


Nuclear Talks Between Iran and P5+1 Will Be Held in Istanbul
Uskowi on Iran, March 10, 2012

Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News, quoting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, repored today that the talks on Iranian nuclear program between the six major powers and Iran will be held in Istanbul in early April.

(David Rothkopf at ForeignPolicy.com noted March 12 in his article "The Iceman Leadeth, The cool diplomacy of Barack Obama" that When Time's Fareed Zakaria recently asked Obama about his closest international relationships, the example he offered of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to many observers to be a reach, further proof of Obama's remoteness.)


Obama emerges from Israel-Iran talks with precious commodity
By Chris McGreal in Washington, guardian.co.uk, 9 March 2012

How Obama overcame the harsh rhetoric of Binyamin Netanyahu and others on Iran – and came out ahead [.....]

Hard Line on Iran Places White House in a Bind
By Mark Landler, Thom Shanker and Helene Cooper, New York Times, March 29/30, 2012

Lede: The White House is trying to convince Iran that it is serious about military action without leaving a sense that war is inevitable

WASHINGTON — As American and European diplomats prepare for crucial negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the White House finds itself caught in a bind: for the diplomatic effort to work, American officials say, the Iranian government must believe that President Obama is ready and willing to take military action.

Yet tough talk, necessary as it might be for successful diplomacy, contributes to a sense that war may be unavoidable. And it masks the fact that Mr. Obama, and his military commanders, remain deeply worried about the consequence of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, either by Israel alone or a strike that could draw in the United States [....]

Some White House officials acknowledge that in an election year when Republican candidates are calling for tougher action against Iran, the misgivings expressed by the Pentagon — both publicly and privately — over a strike could provide the president with some political cover.

A classified war simulation conducted by United States Central Command this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli airstrike, for example, found that an Israeli attack could lead to a wider regional war, draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, providing recent evidence to the skeptics — not only in the Pentagon but also in the White House and intelligence community as well — who have warned that any action by Israel against Iran could prove perilous.

At the same time, some current and former administration officials worry that any hesitancy about considering military action that is expressed in the United States could lull the Iranians into thinking that they do not need to make concessions at the negotiating table, just at a time when the diplomatic effort has taken center stage [....]

Iran still coy on Turkey's overtures
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Asia Times Online, April 3, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - Despite a strong personal pitch by the visiting Turkish premier last week to hold the next round of Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul, Tehran is still ambivalent and may opt for an alternative venue.

Although the talks are tentatively scheduled for mid-April, as the time of writing there has been no official announcement regarding the venue, even though Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in his meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his personal view that Istanbul was "the best place" to hold the multilateral talks between Iran and the "Iran Six" nations (UN Security Council's permanent five - the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China - plus Germany).

The fact that Erdogan's trip was followed by Turkey's announcement that it was complying with Western energy sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and was thus reducing its oil imports from Iran by 20%, coinciding with opposite expressions by countries such as China and Pakistan, has certainly added to Iran's ambivalence.

This is not to mention Iran's misgivings about Turkey's anti-Damascus stance, the threat of military action in Syria together with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, as well as Turkey's embrace of an anti-Iran radar system, all of which have inevitably introduced uncomfortable thorns in Iran-Turkey relations.
As a result, no matter Erdogan's latest heroics regarding Israel's nuclear arsenal and his expression of support for Iran's civilian nuclear program, the political apprehensions and concerns about Turkey's regional intentions are becoming cemented in Iran. Even if Tehran agrees to hold the talks in Istanbul, this would be an uncomfortable decision taken with a good deal of reluctance.

By holding the Iran talks, Turkey seeks to replicate its efforts in the Syrian crisis [...]

Iran, World Powers Launch Nuclear Talks, VOA News, April 13

Delegations from Iran and world powers are in Turkey ahead of the first talks in more than a year on Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Iran and representatives of the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia [known as the P5 + 1] were holding preliminary meetings on Friday, ahead of direct talks set to begin Saturday in Istanbul....

How to Tell if the Iran Talks Are Working
By Mark Hibbs, Ariel Levite and George Perkovic, Op-Ed Contributors, New York Times, April 12/13, 2012

Mark Hibbs and Ariel Levite are senior associates of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, which George Perkovich directs.

[....] Given these complexities, it won’t be easy to assess the progress of the coming talks. But we can suggest benchmarks: we can suggest benchmarks:

Oil prices: [....]

Access for verifiers: [....]

The bargaining issues: [....].

U.S.-Iran dialogue: [....]

Frequency and duration of meetings: [....]

A summer deadline: [....]

US-Israel deal threatens progress
By Gareth Porter, republished by Asia Times Online from IPS, April 14

WASHINGTON - The Barack Obama administration has adopted a demand in the negotiations with Iran beginning on Saturday in Istanbul that its Fordow enrichment facility must be shut down and eventually dismantled based on an understanding with Israel that risks the collapse of the negotiations.

It is unclear, however, whether the administration intends to press that demand regardless of Iran's rejection or will withdraw it later in the talks. Washington is believed to be interested in obtaining at least an agreement that would keep the talks going through the electoral campaign and beyond.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, has been extremely anxious about the possibility of an agreement that would allow the Iranian enrichment programme to continue. So it hopes the demand for closure and dismantling of Fordow will be a "poison pill" whose introduction could cause the breakdown of the talks with Iran.

In an interview with Inter Press Service (IPS), Reza Marashi, who worked in the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs from 2006 to 2010, said, "If the demand for Fordow's closure is non-negotiable, the talks will likely fail."

Iran has already rejected the demand [....]

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