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Diplomats Set to Resume Nuclear Talks With Iran

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Diplomats from the United States, France, Russia and the United Nations are scheduled to meet with Iranian officials next Monday, October 19, in Vienna to resume discussions about the country's nuclear program. But some Middle East analysts are looking at possible options should the talks fail, including the possibility of severe sanctions or even military action.

Monday's talks are expected to focus on a proposal to ship a large percentage of Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for conversion to fuel for a nuclear reactor.

Western diplomats consider such a move to be a confidence building measure since the uranium shipped back to Iran would be used for civilian purposes and would be enriched below the level needed for nuclear weapons.

Middle East analyst David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy supports the Obama administration's decision to negotiate with Iran, even if the talks are unsuccessful.

"We don't know if engagement will work," he said. "But we think even if it does not work as a strategy, as a tactic it is useful to basically frame all our other policy options. They will be viewed as more legitimate, more credible, because we will have tried."

The latest round of talks comes days after the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation making it easier for state and local governments to curtail investments in companies doing business in Iran's energy sector.

It is one of several bills introduced in Congress designed to pressure Iran about its nuclear program.

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Senator Joe Lieberman supports tougher sanctions on Tehran.

"My own belief is that the current Iranian leadership, the fanatical regime that governs from Tehran, will only consider stepping back from the nuclear brink when they are convinced that if they fail to do so there will be consequences so severe that the continuity of their regime will be threatened," he said.

Lawmakers in Congress have called for stronger sanctions on Iran since it was revealed the government is working on a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is scheduled to inspect the facility later this month.

"We found this facility in Qom, are there other secret facilities that are out there? Could they be spinning this amount of uranium somewhere else? This is something that is another key factor that needs to be addressed," said Middle East analyst David Makovsky.

While the Obama administration is committed to diplomacy with Iran, it is also pursuing a parallel track of seeking approval for harsh new sanctions in an effort to prevent Tehran from dragging out the negotiations.

So far, both Russia and China have not backed new sanctions, despite efforts by the administration to convince those countries that without such a threat Iran has less incentive to make concessions.

Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst on Iranian military issues, argues that even new sanctions are not likely to have an impact that is significant enough to force Tehran to stop enriching uranium.

"My fear is that we may get something, but that it is not going to be enough and when that happens the entire policy is going to be revealed as having been a façade," he said.

Pollack says he has supported engagement with Iran for at least a decade, but now thinks it may be time to isolate the government.

"The most useful thing that the United States could do for the Iranian people, for the opposition movement, is to isolate the regime, is to not give it the benefit, the legitimacy of being recognized by the international community," he said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, goes a step further, suggesting financial sanctions backed by a naval blockade could be used to contain the Iranian government.

"This can be done in a way that tightens up your economic sanctions," he said. "That perhaps someday tightens up a ban on Iran doing gasoline importation. There is a lot to be said for this option because it returns the onus back to Iran to initiate the use of force."

The Obama administration has not set any specific timelines for Iranian action, but has made it clear the U.S. will not negotiate indefinitely. The U.S. and other major powers are concerned Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons program. Tehran insists its program is peaceful and for civilian use.