Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

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Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

Iran, at technical talks with six world powers in Istanbul last month, said it would consider suspending its 20% enrichment for six months and converting more of its 20% stockpile to oxide for medical use, Al Monitor reported last week. However, Iran expressed objections to other demands in a revised international proposal presented in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February, Al Monitor reported. Among them, shipping out the bulk of its 20% stockpile, curtailing other operations at the Fordo facility beyond 20% enrichment, and increased IAEA inspections, a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor.

Samore acknowledged that Iran had deliberately constrained growth of its 20% stockpile by converting much of it for medical use in order to avoid approaching ‘red lines’ that could trigger military action by either the United States or Israel. He suggested such a situation might continue for the near future.

“The primary factor which determines whether military force will be used is what happens on the ground,” Samore said. “I can imagine [a scenario] in which the diplomacy continues, in fits and starts. But the Iranians remain cautious to not take action that would trigger military strikes.”

Samore said he did not favor trying to pivot to negotiating a more comprehensive “go big” offer with Iran, as former White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross has advocated, because, he said, there’s little chance it would succeed.

“The trouble with a big deal going forward is it is virtually guaranteed to fail,” Samore said. “The terms that would be required by the United States” for a comprehensive nuclear deal “would be unacceptable to Iran.”

Former European Union Iran negotiator Javier Solana, speaking with Samore on the Brookings panel, argued that Iran was unlikely to agree to a nuclear deal at this point unless negotiations are expanded to include the issue of Syria.

“I don’t think it’s possible to move on Iran without Syria,” Solana, the former Spanish foreign minister and NATO Secretary-General who served as the lead international negotiator with Iran from 2003-2009, told the Washington audience. Iran’s “relationship with Syria is deeper than between any two members of NATO.”

But Samore, reflecting the Obama administration position to date, suggested the US was cool to the proposition, given the US and Iran are virtually “enemies” on many regional issues, from Hezbollah and the Middle East peace process to the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf, he said.

An Iranian official, asked to respond to Samore’s comments, said Iran’s presidential elections were not a chief impediment to a nuclear deal.

“There is a national consensus in Iran on the inalienable right of the country in peaceful nuclear technology, including the right of uranium enrichment for the peaceful purposes and any president in Iran should follow this national consensus among all Iranian people,” Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor by email Monday.

“As Iran repeatedly reiterated, it is ready to accept any reasonable suggestion in this regard,” Miryousefi continued. “The next presidential election in June is very important, but we believe that it will not affect so much this reasonable national approach.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader, speaking last month in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, suggested a resolution to the nuclear dispute was not overly complicated.

“If the Americans wanted to resolve the issue, this would be a very simple solution: they could recognize the Iranian nation’s right to enrichment and in order to address those concerns, they could enforce the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Khamenei said in a March 21 speech in Mashhad. “We were never opposed to the supervision and regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

“Whenever we are close to a solution, the Americans cause a problem in order to prevent reaching a solution,” Khamenei continued. “My assumption and interpretation is that their goal is to keep the issue unresolved so that they can have a pretext for exerting pressure on us.”

Another western diplomat whose country is involved in the negotiations said that while there are few expectations for a decisive breakthrough at “Almaty 2,” he hoped Iran would “seize the opportunity” offered in the updated proposal.

“On Iran, we don’t really think the last meetings in Almaty and Istanbul have significantly changed the equation,” the western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. The main topics of 20% enrichment and Fordo were raised, but the details were not deeply discussed, he said. “We, the 5+1, want the Iranians to feel the pressure,” he continued. “We don’t want them to misunderstand where are our positions.”

(Photo: Former U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction Gary Samore is seen in a talk with Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (not in picture) during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia August 7, 2009. REUTERS/Roberto Jayme.)