The United States and other world powers are scheduled to meet with Iran next week as part of efforts to curb that country’s controversial nuclear program and avoid an armed conflict in the Middle East.
The talks to be held in Baghdad on May 23 are the second in the latest round between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
Western nations have long suspected Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies. The Security Council has imposed several sets of sanctions on Iran to pressure it to curb its uranium enrichment program and other suspect activities.
Ahead of the Baghdad talks, Iranian and U.N. nuclear agency representatives have been meeting on allowing international inspectors access to Iran's disputed sites. Analysts say advances in Vienna could set the stage for possible movement in the Baghdad talks.
Nicholas Burns, currently a professor at Harvard University, was the lead U.S. negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program.
“There is no argument around the world about what Iran is trying to do and that is to seek a nuclear weapons capability. I think these talks in Baghdad will be, obviously, quite critical,” he said.
Along with the U.N. sanctions, Iran’s central bank has been slapped with tough new sanctions and the European Union has agreed to embargo Iranian oil as of July 1.
The West has demanded an end to Iran’s uranium enrichment, which Tehran sees as a matter of national sovereignty.
Steve Rademaker is a former State Department official who directed nonproliferation policy toward Iran.
“I think we have to keep our focus on Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which has always been the crown jewel of their nuclear weapons program," he said. "Any deal that permits them to continue enrichment I think is a bad deal for the United States.”
The United States and Israel have not ruled out military strikes to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
But rising concerns about an armed conflict cooled after talks last month in Istanbul when Iranian negotiators appeared more flexible than expected.
Dennis Ross is a former White House adviser on Iran now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ross says the diplomatic track must move forward, but Iran should not be allowed to use the talks to buy time to build up its nuclear program.
“One is we can’t allow this to be an open-ended process because the Iranians actually will exploit it," he said. "But, two, we have to give it enough time to be credible and we have to be in a position where we also demonstrated we put something on the table that was credible and the Iranians turned it down. In the end, if it turns out diplomacy fails and force has to be used, force needs to be seen as having been the product of the Iranians having brought this on themselves.”
U.S. intelligence officials say Iran is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons, but has not yet made the decision to build a bomb.