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What will be on the table in Istanbul

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TEL AVIV -- A meeting this Friday in Istanbul between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran is probably one of the most important international events in decade.

It will determine whether Iran is sincerely ready to compromise on its nuclear plans, or whether it will use the negotiations as a delaying tactic while continuing its plans to become a nuclear power and a regional leader.

Iran was the first to signal its readiness to compromise on this issue. In a televised speech in early February, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said: "The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue a nuclear weapons program. The Islamic Republic -- logically, religiously and theoretically -- considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin. Iran believes that the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, dangerous and destructive."

The Western reaction was cautious. The West believed this sensational statement was made to ease economic sanctions that were causing great suffering in Iran. The West decided to tighten the sanctions. But in the diplomatic corridors, Khamenei's statement received better attention. It was obvious Iran was signalling a change in its position. The U.S. decided to explore this possibility.

The U.S. used Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's invitation to attend the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee's annual conference to co-ordinate its Iranian position with that of Israel. Beyond the "strong" public statements, Israel and the U.S. reached an agreement: Netanyahu won a clear commitment from U.S. President Barack Obama that should negotiations fail, the U.S. will strike, together with Israel and several European allies at Iran's nuclear facilities. For his part, Netanyahu gave Obama enough rope for negotiations and did not set any time limit for these negotiations.

Now came the time for diplomacy and the "messenger" was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Obama knew, of course, Iranian-Turkish relations have soured, mostly because of Turkish attitude toward Syria. Iran disliked the fact Erdogan turned his back on Bashar Assad and questioned Erdogan's loyalty and sincerity. But there was no other messenger.

Thus, Obama met with Erdogan in Seoul, South Korea, for two hours. Obama wanted Erdogan to explain to Khamenei that time for a peaceful solution is running out and Iran should take advantage of the window for negotiations.

Erdogan met with Kamenei on March 29. Iran responded favourably to the idea of negotiations. But it had some reservations about the venue. In the past, it was ready to meet in Istanbul. But now, because of Turkish enmity to Syria, it preferred the talks be held in Baghdad.

Days of intense negotiations followed. At the end, it was agreed the meeting of the P5-plus-one will be held in Istanbul. If there is enough progress in the talks, the next meeting will be held in Baghdad.

The road to Istanbul was now wide open. The U.S. and its allies have presented publicly their positions:

The U.S. accepts an Iranian program for low-grade uranium enrichment for non-military purposes.

The U.S. insists on an enhanced and more extensive inspection rights for the International Atomic Energy Agency, including access to previously closed sites.

The removal from Iran of all 20 per cent enriched uranium, possibly to Russia. So far, Iran has produced about 100 kilograms of 20 per cent enriched uranium -- less than is required to produce a single bomb.

The U.S. is also demanding the closure of the nuclear facility at Fordou, deep under a mountain near the holy city of Qom.

As expected, Iran rejected these public conditions, but it agreed for the negotiations to open in Istanbul Friday. Iran also signalled its desire to enlarge the scope of the negotiations to include other political subjects, such as the West's efforts to unseat Assad in Damascus and smuggling of arms by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebels.

The West, meanwhile, wants to limit the scope of negotiations only to the nuclear issue only with other Middle East issues to come later.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free

Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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