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Tough Talks Ahead on Iran's Nuclear Program


FILE - Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

FILE - Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

When an interim agreement goes into effect on January 20, world powers and Iran will begin negotiations on a comprehensive plan to ensure that Tehran’s nuclear program will be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

The interim accord freezes most of Iran’s nuclear program for six months in exchange for some relief from international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. Negotiators hope to build on the interim agreement and conclude a comprehensive pact in six months.

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two presidents, Gerald Ford (1974-77) and George H.W. Bush (1989-93) said the interim accord, which paved the way for more intense negotiations, is a step forward.

“Whether it will work, I don’t know. But it seems to me that a couple of things have happened - that is the sanctions are hurting Iran economically," Scowcroft said. “And politically, we have had the election of a much more moderate group. Now how much power that moderate group has, it’s difficult to say, because Iran is a very complicated political governing structure. But I think there is an opportunity now.”

Lack of trust

Retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, who headed U.S. Central Command (1997-2000) for military operations in the Middle East, said a key problem is that there is a lack of trust - not just between the United States and Iran.

“Our allies in the region, not just Israel but certainly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others, really have no trust in this and are really leery of this agreement,” Zinni said. “I think many of them feel we may want it more than the Iranians want it and it may be just a way to buy time. So there is a long way to go to see if this is a true change in their dealing with us and others in the region.”

Senators want more sanctions

As the six powers and Iran work toward a final agreement, many U.S. senators are threatening more sanctions on Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. The lawmakers say sanctions brought Tehran to the negotiating table and new measures would force Iran to negotiate in good faith.

President Barack Obama is against new sanctions while the negotiations are ongoing and says he would veto such legislation.

“My preference is for peace and diplomacy and this is one of the reasons why I have sent a message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions - now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work,” he said.

The six-month agreement between Iran and the world powers stipulates no new sanctions by the United Nations, the European Union or the United States. The Iranian government has threatened to boycott the talks if new sanctions are put in place.

General Zinni said U.S. lawmakers should take a “wait and see” attitude.

“Now is not the time to sort of interfere or disrupt what’s going on. Let’s see where it [the talks] goes. Let’s see what the next step is and where it takes us before we preempt our administration’s negotiations,” Zinni said. “I think it is wise of Congress to stay tuned to this thing and to watch it and monitor it - but I think to interfere, until we understand how far the next step might take us, is a mistake.”

But John Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, is for tougher measures.

“I favor more sanctions,” he said, “because I do think it puts pressure on the regime, and I think anything that puts pressure on the regime and that could lead to its collapse and replacement is a good thing.”

Analysts say despite the threat of more sanctions, the negotiations beginning January 20 represent the best chance for an agreement. But they say these talks will be far more difficult than those that led to the interim accord.

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    Andre de Nesnera

    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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