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Clinton Says ‘Still Time’ for a Nuclear Deal With Iran

World powers negotiating with Iran in Istanbul may discuss postponing a planned European oil embargo against the Persian Gulf nation in exchange for Iranian promises to stop refining uranium, a former diplomat said.

The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. -- plus Germany, the so-called P5+1, will hold their first talks with Iran in 15 months when they convene in Turkey on April 14. The previous round of negotiations ended without agreement in January 2011.

Iran’s growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which could be purified into atomic-bomb material in a matter of months, is a leading concern of the P5+1 group. The impending July 1 European Union oil embargo against Iran, along with four sets of UN Security Council sanctions, may give negotiators leverage to win concessions, say former diplomats.

“Iran may well insist on one or more of these impositions being lifted in return for capping 20 percent enrichment,” said Peter Jenkins, who hosted Iran negotiations as the former U.K. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

“They may point to the recent EU restrictions on the purchase of Iranian oil,” Jenkins, now a partner at London-based ADRg Ambassadors LLP, a corporate and government advisory company, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “Lifting these would bring benefits to consumers everywhere, as they have pushed up global oil prices by 10 percent or more. Expect a haggle.”

Enriched Uranium

Iran tripled production of enriched uranium to 31 pounds (14 kilograms) per month, the IAEA reported in November. That puts them on track to produce more than 551 pounds of 20 percent-enriched material by the end of 2012, according to Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s former top inspector who visited Iranian nuclear facilities on more than 20 trips. Iran could produce bomb-grade uranium “in a couple months time,” he said.

“The suspension of the production of 20 percent enriched uranium is important for confidence building,” Heinonen wrote today in response to questions. “I see the Istanbul meeting as the start of a process. We should not expect that we will have immediate big achievements.”

Iran, the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, plans to offer “new initiatives” at the Istanbul talks, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, said yesterday.

“We hope that the P5+1 countries will also enter talks with constructive approaches,” Jalili was quoted as saying today in Tehran by the official IRNA news agency.

Oil Production

Iran’s oil production may decline by as much as 950,000 barrels a day by the middle of this year as EU and U.S. embargoes take effect, the International Energy Agency said today in its monthly Oil Market Report. Prices have gained this year on concern that Iran tensions will disrupt global supplies.

In addition to curtailing uranium enrichment, President Barack Obama may demand that Iran shutter and dismantle its Fordo underground enrichment facility, the New York Times reported April 9. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak also called on Fordo to be closed in an April 9 interview on CNN.

Giving the Iranians an ultimatum over Fordo “would be disastrous,” said Greg Thielmann, a former Deputy Director at the State Department who now works with the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

‘Sabotaging Whole Thing’

“Talks now over Fordo aren’t necessary and risk sabotaging the whole thing by putting that issue up front,” said Thielmann, who added the U.S. should focus on winning a deal that would curtail uranium production.

All the former diplomats stressed that the Istanbul meetings should be seen as the first step of a long-term process. The U.S. hasn’t maintained normal diplomatic contact with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, when 52 U.S. diplomats were held hostage in Tehran for 444 days.

“Too often the West has walked away from discussions at the first occurrence of a set-back,” Jenkins said. “Their primary goal in Istanbul may be to agree on a process.”

The amount of time given to diplomats seeking a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear dispute may be a source of friction between the U.S. and its negotiating partners.

President Obama, after a March 25 meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned Iran that “there is a window of time to resolve this question diplomatically, but that window is closing.”

Military Strikes

Israel isn’t ruling out military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities unless alleged nuclear-weapons work is halted. Iran insists its atomic activities are peaceful and in line with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rights.

Iran’s talks with six world powers over its nuclear program this week aren’t a “last-ditch attempt” to reach a peaceful settlement, a senior Russian lawmaker said in an interview in Moscow yesterday.

“That’s the position of the Obama administration, and I don’t think our position is the same,” said Alexei Pushkov, head of the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “We believe that talks must continue until you reach the desired result.”

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