Analysis: Movement but no grand bargain with Iran

NEW YORK -- In diplomatic parlance, it's called "movement" - a small step here and there in the direction of a deal but with an uncertain end. Those stirrings of motion may be what are now emerging with international efforts to ensure that Iran does not build a nuclear bomb.

After a week of meetings aimed at thwarting Iranian nuclear ambitions, there are hopeful hints of movement between the U.S. and its partners and even signs of openness from Iran. But it's hard to see that yielding a grand bargain anytime soon.

Among the positive steps: After years of resisting negotiations, the Iranians have agreed to meet with officials of the U.S. and five other world powers in Geneva next week. Nuclear issues are on the agenda, but Iran says that doesn't include its own nuclear program.

President Barack Obama also won a new measure of Russian support - at least rhetorically - for imposing tougher international sanctions to squeeze Iran in the months ahead if the Geneva talks lead to a dead end.

A week after Obama pleased Russia by scaling back a Bush-era missile shield proposal for Europe, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded by suggesting his government might look favorably at stiffening sanctions if Iran proves unreceptive.

China, however, whose cooperation on sanctions enforcement also would be important, remains publicly opposed to threatening penalties and threw a damper on any support.

"China always believes that sanction and pressure should not be an option and will not be conducive to the current diplomatic efforts over the Iran nuclear issue," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

China and Russia are essential for sanctions to succeed because of their large and growing trade and investment interests in the Gulf region. China, which depends on foreign imports for about half its oil, counts Iran as its third-largest supplier. It also sells weapons to Iran, and the Pentagon said earlier this year that some were ending up with terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even with support for sanctions still uncertain, Iran seemed to set a softer tone during the U.N. General Assembly this week. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told The Associated Press his government will not stand in the way of "free and open" discussion of nuclear issues at the Geneva talks.

The next day, he indicated for the first time that Tehran would be willing to have its nuclear experts meet with Western scientists. Protests outside Ahmadinejad's hotel hinted at a strong factor in Iran's sudden flexibility - the regime may be more inclined to deal in light of the domestic upheaval still simmering after the disputed June presidential election and the government's crackdown.

Time is a crucial factor for all the parties. The longer a stalemate or standoff continues, the closer Iran is likely to get to having the capacity to build a nuclear bomb - although the Tehran government insists the U.S. and others are wrong in claiming it intends to go nuclear.

The New York Times reported Friday that Obama, along with the leaders of Britain and France in Pittsburgh for the G-20 economic summit, will accuse Iran of building a covert underground plant to produce nuclear fuel.


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