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Are the US and Iran preparing for nuclear talks?

The US has denied a report's claim it is engaging in bilateral negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. But news of a diplomatic breakthrough could aid Obama in his effort to win a second term.

"It is not true the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one negotiations or any meeting after the American elections," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Saturday (20.10.2012).

The remark came after a New York Times article, citing unnamed Obama administration officials, reported that both countries had agreed "in principle" to hold negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Iranian officials supposedly insisted on waiting to hold the talks until after the US presidential election on November 6, so they would know who they would be dealing with.

Iranian nuclear power plant aeoi.org.ir (Website: Atom Energy Organisation Iran)

Iran says it has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear power

Vietor said President Barack Obama would stay true to his policy and do everything necessary to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It was up to Tehran to prove it was relinquishing any effort to build a bomb. Otherwise further sanctions were imminent, he added.

Uranium enrichment

Nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom) plus Germany were suspended in June. Tehran has signaled it would forgo enriching uranium if international sanctions were lifted and its right in principle to enrich uranium was recognized.

But the West is especially intent on preventing Iran from enriching uranium to a concentration of more than 20 percent, which is useful for weapons, not power plants. The US and Israel accuse Tehran of secretly developing nuclear weapons, while Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian use only. Israel has recently threatened military action against Iranian nuclear plants.

Nuclear research products in Iran aeoi.org.ir (Website: Atom Energy Organisation Iran)

A uranium concentration above 20 percent could be used for weapons

Failed talks could damage Obama

Obama is under pressure to show some success. His lack of progress in the row over Iran's nuclear program could damage him in the neck-and-neck presidential election race, and his challenger Mitt Romney has not been slow to blame him for the failure. As Middle East expert Michael Lüders told DW, Romney is against negotiations with Iran and wants to implement a tougher policy.

But Obama and Romney agree that Iran's geopolitical ambitions need to be limited if possible. "Iran is the only country in the region that pursues an anti-western policy, apart from Syria," he said. "To that extent, Iran is the last black sheep in the region, from the point of view of western politics." But he added that tensions would remain, whoever becomes president.

Obama's dilemma

Lüders believed that there are agitators both in Iran, and in the US and Israel. "Iran has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said. The country is also a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty for nuclear weapons, and is therefore committed to international weapons controls. In that light, Israel's demand for Iran to stop all uranium enrichment and export any enriched uranium it has is essentially unrealistic.

President Barack Obama, right, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in the presidential debate, on October 16. (Photo:Carolyn Kaster/AP/dapd).

Failed talks with Iran could damage Obama

"This demand is not in line with international law, and won't be fulfilled by Iran," said Lüders. "It's a demand that can't be the basis for a negotiated solution." Obama knows this too, he added, and the president needs to find a way to extricate himself from a dilemma that Israel is primarily responsible for.

Recognition or regime change

Lüders does not think the Obama administration is seriously considering a war against Iran. "As we know, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were far from successful models. And a war would seriously challenge the US's military capacities," the political scientist argued.

Lüders says the core issue is whether the western states are ready to acknowledge Iran as a geo-political player in the Middle East, or whether they will continue to press for a regime change in Tehran by using the nuclear power question. It remains unclear which path they choose to take.

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