GENEVA/VIENNA (Reuters) - World powers will bank on last week’s revelation of a second uranium enrichment plant in Iran for leverage in pushing Iran for nuclear restraint and transparency in rare talks in Geneva Thursday.
The disclosure of the plant tucked inside a hillside on an ex-missile base has hardened Western powers’ resolve to extract Iranian concessions now or resort to biting sanctions fast, and softened Russia’s outright opposition to harsher measures.
But Western charges of a cover-up to mask nuclear arms designs for the plant near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, and Iran’s defiant denials, rekindled a confrontational atmosphere that did not augur well for any hopes of convergence in Geneva.
And given Iran’s enduring refusal to negotiate limits on its enrichment program, which Western powers fear is inexorably approaching potential nuclear weapons capability, Geneva was shaping up as a chronicle of failure foretold.
Iran’s nuclear energy agency chief said Tuesday it would not even discuss its nascent enrichment center in Geneva.
“Things have changed since last week’s announcement but we have to go through the motions since Iran has asked for this meeting,” said a senior Western diplomat.
“The talks are pretty much doomed. It’s clear Iran is not going to say what we want to hear and we’re going to have to move to the next phase,” he said, alluding to wider sanctions.
Washington has suggested severing gasoline imports to Iran, which would hit it hard since it lacks refining capacity. But that proposal faces resistance in Europe given concerns it would hurt ordinary Iranians and reunite them behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad despite his hotly disputed re-election in June.
More viable options may be sanctions on foreign investment in Iran’s oil and gas and import-export sectors and tightening up the leaky current regime of asset freezes on Iranian firms and a ban on nuclear- and missile-related trade with Iran.
Iran says it is enriching uranium solely to fuel nuclear power plants. Enrichment technology can be calibrated to produce low-enriched uranium for electricity or high-grade fissile material for the core of atomic bombs.
The powers will want to see an Iranian readiness in Geneva to freeze the expansion of its main Natanz enrichment complex in exchange for a freeze on steps to broader sanctions.
This is seen as a face-saving way into a nuclear suspension swapped for wide-ranging trade and technology benefits.
The powers will also push Iran for unfettered access for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog, to verify there are no sites anywhere in the vast country geared to producing highly enriched uranium.
“We are counting on the Iranians not to come (to the talks) empty-handed,” said a Russian Foreign Ministry source.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said last week Tehran only intends to raise its latest counter-proposal to the powers’ offer of trade incentives for scrapping enrichment.
As before, that proposal was vague and dodged two major U.N. concerns — Iran’s disregard for resolutions demanding it halt sensitive nuclear activity and come clean on allegations of past nuclear “weaponization” research with IAEA investigators.
“The Qom revelation is bound to make the (six powers) more united and determined to persuade Iran to desist and abide by IAEA rules. It certainly puts Iran on the defensive,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior non-proliferation scholar at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“But that won’t solve the underlying issue of the purpose of the enrichment program. The solution will have to include limitations on the program,” he told Reuters.
Fitzpatrick said Iran could make some concessions in Geneva on transparency, for example by promising to provide advance design information on planned nuclear sites to the IAEA.
But Iran, as ever, will have scant motivation to go further — curbing enrichment or opening its books to IAEA sleuths — as long as it can count on Russia and China blocking crippling sanctions with the threat of vetoes in the Security Council.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said last week that further sanctions, while “seldom productive, are sometimes inevitable.”
Russian statements since have rowed back from any sanctions scenario. Russia’s prevailing stance has been that without hard proof Iran is trying to build atom bombs, there is no need to isolate it.
China wants to preserve the 12 percent of its crude oil stocks it imports from Iran, and sales to Iran of gasoline by state-run Chinese firms, filling a vacuum left by Western exporters bowing to political pressure to stay away.
No decision on more sanctions is likely before the end of the year, and the next batch are likely to be diluted by Russia and China as previous rounds were.
Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Samia Nakhoul