(CNSNews.com) – Seven years after Iran’s clandestine nuclear program was first exposed, a meeting of leading powers on Wednesday gave Tehran three weeks to return to talks on the matter – the latest in a series of deadlines that have so far failed to resolve the standoff.
Over the past four years, the international community has offered Iran three incentives packages in return for its cooperation. Despite U.N. Security Council sanctions, Iran spurned the first two proposals, in 2005 and 2008. The third offer, presented last April, remains on the table.
Experts note that the Iranians have made good use of the time offered by the drawn-out negotiations: In late 2006, 300 centrifuges were enriching uranium at a facility in Natanz in central Iran. A year later that number had risen to 3,000. Last June the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, reported that the number of centrifuges had increased to 7,231. The latest IAEA report says the number has reached 8,300, although it said only 4,600 were operating (see detailed timeline of the Iran nuclear standoff.)
Spinning at high speeds, centrifuges enrich uranium, producing fuel for nuclear power plants or, when enriched to very high levels, fuel for nuclear weapons.
Experts at the Institute for Science and International Security have argued that Iran may be carrying out additional work at a clandestine, undeclared centrifuge facility, possibly as a back-up in case the Natanz complex is attacked by Israel or the United States.
“Our conclusion is that Iran has not made the political decision to develop a nuclear weapon, but that should its leadership so decide, Iran would have viable options for producing enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon within six months or less,” ISIS said in July.
Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes only, and has consistently refused to relinquish its right to produce nuclear fuel.
Last month, President Obama and other leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations gave Iran a September deadline to accept last April’s proposal to return to talks, or face tougher sanctions.
One proposal advanced by U.S. lawmakers involves blocking imports of gasoline. Despite being a major oil producer, Iran -- whose refineries are in a poor condition -- depends on imports for some 40 percent of its needs. Gas rationing in the past has triggered violent anti-government unrest.
This week, on the eve of a meeting of senior officials from permanent U.N. Security Council members the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France, plus Germany (the P5+1), Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was quoted by the Tehran Times as saying Iran would present new proposals “to address shared concerns in the international arena.”
Although Jalili gave no further details, his remarks were discussed at the P5+1 meeting in Frankfurt on Wednesday, where representatives said they expected Iran to agree to talks before the U.N. General Assembly’s new annual session in New York.
The session opens officially on Sept. 15, but the general debate runs from Sept. 23-30.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday that a “negotiated solution” was still possible, but declined to call the General Assembly meeting a deadline, saying instead it was giving Iran “a time frame.”
Asked what the repercussions would be if Iran failed to respond by then, Kelly replied, “I’m not going to predict what we’re going to do, but right now, that offer’s still on the table and we are urging Iran to respond.”
In its latest report on the Iran dossier, the IAEA said last week that Iran was continuing to enrich uranium in violation of U.N. resolutions, but at a slightly slower rate in recent months. It also cited evasiveness on Iran’s part about suspected military aspects of its activities.
Iran welcomed the report as “positive,” and analysts predicted that Russia and China, which have never been overly supportive of sanctions against Tehran, would use the report to argue that it was becoming more cooperative and hence no new sanctions were needed.
“The best means to apply outside pressure on Iran’s decision-making process lie not in isolating Tehran or threats of resorting to force, but in involving it in important international cooperation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a speech in Moscow on Tuesday.
The Vienna-based IAEA holds two board meetings and its regular annual general meeting this month, with Iran and North Korea expected to dominate discussions.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who steps down at year’s end after 12 years in the post, has been accused of holding back evidence pointing to attempts by Iran to develop a weapons capability.
ElBaradei, who told the BBC last June that it was his “gut feeling” the Iranians wanted to have the technology “that would enable it to have nuclear weapons if they decided to do so,” said in a new interview released this week that the threat posed by Iran “has been hyped.”
(See Timeline of the Iran nuclear standoff.)