June 11, 2006

Suspension issue tests Bush, Iran, major powers

By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush already has
made significant concessions as part of a major power offer to
end the Iran nuclear crisis.

But will he give on the crucial demand for a full
suspension of Tehran's uranium enrichment activities, which is
key to whether negotiations even begin?

In effect, "talks about talks" are already underway.

The details of the package put to Iran by the United States
and other major powers last week "are far less important than
this struggle over conditions for starting the talks," said
Gary Samore, a non-proliferation expert who was a senior
adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

"The real focus of all the diplomatic energy right now is
over this question of suspension" of nuclear enrichment. It
could soon present the White House with a difficult choice,
whether to compromise more or move toward sanctions, Samore
said in an interview.

A sworn foe of Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution,
Washington recently agreed to negotiate directly with Tehran on
the nuclear issue in a process that includes Britain, France,
Germany, Russia and China.

The six offered Iran incentives to give up the possibility
of producing nuclear arms, including light-water nuclear power
reactors, guaranteed nuclear fuel and expanded trade benefits
-- all of which Bush had long opposed.

But first, the major powers insist that Iran verifiably
halts all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing
activities which are essential to producing nuclear fuel.

The United States and its partners accuse Iran, the world's
fourth-largest oil exporter, of building nuclear weapons, while
Tehran maintains it only aims to produce civilian nuclear power
to meet the country's growing energy needs.


Because Iran concealed its nuclear activities from the
International Atomic Energy Agency for nearly 20 years,
distrust is high.

Americans fear Iran will use negotiations to buy time until
they achieve a point-of-no-return level of nuclear knowledge
and capacity, perhaps by year's end. As a result, the six
powers are pressing Iran for an answer by mid-July.

Iran on Sunday gave its most negative assessment of the
package, saying it contained "problems" and Tehran would
respond with its own proposals.

Iran usually refers to uranium enrichment as a national
right. Since announcing in April that Iran had enriched uranium
in small quantities, Iranian officials have often insisted
Tehran would not now give up this work.

Some Iranian officials have hinted, however, their
government might negotiate over plans for industrial-scale
enrichment in favor of retaining a smaller-scale research and
development program.

Samore said Russia would be a key player. "If the Russians
are prepared to threaten sanctions over the issue of full
suspension (of nuclear enrichment), I could see Iran taking a
pause," he said.

U.S. officials insist the major powers agree that
suspension means full suspension and Washington, at least, will
hold firm. "There is no point in engaging in a negotiating
process if Iran can continue to make progress on their nuclear
program ... You don't want them to be able to get good at it,"
one senior U.S. official said.

American hardliners largely have muted their misgivings
over the concessions Bush has already offered. However, if the
president budges on the demand for a full suspension of nuclear
enrichment activities, "the rightwing will go crazy," said
former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright of the Institute
for Science and International Security.

Bush had little choice but to enter negotiations and many
expect he will come under increasing pressure to concede more.

"We're more vulnerable than they are, and they know it.
They're going to have 20, 30 nuclear weapons five years from
now. This is not a time for military threats, this is a time to
build alliances," retired General Barry McCaffrey said on
Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."