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Obama Uses Turkey for Back Channel With Iran

I think you have to take what David Ignatius writes with a grain of salt sometimes. But I will note that the war fever over Iran’s nuclear program has subsided somewhat. And now, this:

President Obama has signaled Iran that the United States would accept an Iranian civilian nuclear program if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can back up his recent public claim that his nation “will never pursue nuclear weapons.”

This verbal message was sent through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited Khamenei last week. A few days before traveling to Iran, Erdogan had held a two-hour meeting with Obama in Seoul, in which they discussed what Erdogan would tell the ayatollah about the nuclear issue and Syria.

Obama advised Erdogan that the Iranians should realize that time is running out for a peaceful settlement and that Tehran should take advantage of the current window for negotiations. Obama didn’t specify whether Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium domestically as part of the civilian program the United States would endorse. That delicate issue evidently would be left for the negotiations that are supposed to start April 13, at a venue yet to be decided.

Of course, Brazil and Turkey already got Iran to agree to a uranium swap, where it would get enriched in Russia and returned to Iran. Even though that basic framework matched with an offer that Western powers first brought up in negotiations in 2009, they rejected the Brazil/Turkey deal.

Khamenei has said repeatedly that Iran “will never pursue” nuclear weapons, and that doing so would violate Islamic law. The US and other countries have always been skeptical; but here, at least, Obama is allowing Khamenei to be as good as his word.

The problem, of course, will come with verification, as well as the details. But I think this is a small breakthrough. Before, even the presence of a civilian nuclear energy program was seen as “evidence” of a weapons program. Now this signal suggests that Iran would be allowed to carry that civilian nuclear energy program, which is their right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s not saying much that Iran would be “allowed” to so something that they have the perfect right to do. But it’s actually an advance, at least rhetorically.

Ignatius adds that promised negotiations between Iran and the West have stalled on a meeting place. But sometimes the back channel will tell you more than what happens in public.

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David Dayen

David Dayen