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Iran Counter-Offers on Uranium Enrichment

This is a critical week for US-Iran policy. Talks begin in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program, and the US laid out some preconditions that appeared similar to what President Bush would do as a precursor to negotiations. The preconditions essentially equal the entire negotiations themselves: if Iran stops all uranium enrichment and closes their nuclear facility buried into the mountain near Qom, then talks can progress. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, did not agree to the preconditions today. However, Iran did float a counter-offer for the negotiations:

Iran’s nuclear chief signaled Tehran’s envoys may bring a compromise offer to the talks this week with world powers: promising to eventually stop producing its most highly enriched uranium, while not totally abandoning its ability to make nuclear fuel […]

But the proposal described by Iran’s nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, may not go far enough to satisfy the West because it would leave the higher enriched uranium still in Tehran’s hands rather than transferred outside the country.

Abbasi said Tehran could stop its production of 20 percent enriched uranium needed for a research reactor, and continue enriching uranium to lower levels for power generation.

This could take place once Iran has stockpiled enough of the 20 percent enriched uranium, Abbasi told state TV. The 20 percent enriched material can be used for medical research and treatments.

This is actually a small step backwards. Iran had agreed to a uranium enrichment fuel swap in a deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil in 2009. But even though it mirrored the fuel swap alternative that Western leaders first offered, they rejected it. And now the first offers have diverged even more: Iran wants to keep control over its enriched uranium, while the US and the West want an end to production entirely and a shuttering of facilities.

Amidst this backdrop, the US has sent a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf:

The U.S. Navy said Monday it has deployed a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region amid rising tensions with Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

The deployment of the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise along with the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group marks one of the few times the Navy has had two aircraft carriers operating in waters near the Persian Gulf, said Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.

The two carriers will support the American military operations in Afghanistan and anti-piracy efforts off Somalia’s coast and in the Gulf of Aden, she said.

I think she’s omitting something. Obviously the deployment of the second aircraft carrier signals some kind of gunboat diplomacy to go along with the new round of talks.

The war fever over Iran has simmered over the last month, but I could easily see it renewing again, given the set pieces in place for the next week.

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David Dayen

David Dayen