By Andre de Nesnera, VOA
As the most substantive dialogue in years unfolds between Tehran and world powers over its controversial nuclear program, Iran is pushing to have crippling international economic sanctions eased. The Obama administration is indicating some softening, with a chief U.S. official involved in the talks telling VOA recently that the time is coming for a pause in new sanctions.
World powers are set to resume talks with Iranian representatives on November 7. The United States and the European Union believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.
In an effort to pressure Iran to end its uranium enrichment program, the United Nations Security Council has passed resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran. In addition, the United States and members of the European Union have imposed their own measures.
Iran has increased its international politicking in recent weeks, saying in order for talks to advance, sanctions must be lifted. Analysts say the sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy and currency, driving up unemployment and inflation.
But John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, said there is no evidence the sanctions have affected Iran’s nuclear program.
“We have to the contrary statements by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency [Yukiya Amano], by the Obama administration’s own Director of National Intelligence [James Clapper] earlier this year, that they don’t see any sign that the nuclear weapons program has been affected at all,” Bolton said.
Over the years, Western nations and Iran have been engaged in negotiations on Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
Experts say one issue discussed recently was for Tehran to curtail its uranium enrichment program in exchange for easing Western economic and financial sanctions. But little progress was made.
At a meeting in Geneva several weeks ago, however, both sides expressed optimism, calling the talks constructive.
Analysts say the change in tone is due in large part to the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president - a man who favors engagement with the West.
Harshness of sanctions debated
As negotiations between Iran and Western powers continue, some U.S. senators are seeking harsher sanctions on Iran if it does not curtail its uranium enrichment program.
But Jim Walsh, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says such action would be counterproductive.
“It would be very unhelpful for Congress to pass new sanctions in the middle of negotiations," he said. "Imagine if Iran did the same: in the middle of negotiations, it suddenly started to expand its production of 20 percent [enriched uranium] or turned on its new, advanced centrifuges.
“We would freak out - the U.S. side would freak out," he added. "They would say 'how can we negotiate with people when they are doing that?' The people who want to support sanctions ought to think about how Iranians will view that if they do the same thing to them.”
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, said harsh measures against Iran can only go so far.
“Iran, like any country, is a proud country," Kimball said. "The leaders are proud and the people are proud, and they are not going to capitulate to every demand, even if sanctions are toughened even further. There are limits to what these sanctions can do.”
In a recent interview with VOA’s Persian News Network, Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator in talks with Iran, called for a delay in any new sanctions, saying that she and others believe the current talks represent the best chance to resolve the nuclear issue.
But Joel Rubin, an Iran expert with the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation specializing in nuclear policy, said U.S. President Barack Obama is taking a political risk.
“It should not go unnoticed how much of a risk it has been for the Obama administration to continue to argue that a diplomatic solution is the best way forward," he said. "But not only is it a political risk, but it is also a political necessity and it’s a policy necessity.
“President Obama can credibly argue that by engaging, he is testing Iran and he is creating a situation where you can point to American leadership through the use of words and pressure and economic tools that do achieve security objectives,” Rubin said.
Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA's Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.
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