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That open acknowledgement of the goal is new. Its fulfillment, if achieved, would reverse years of resistance by Iran on this score.
In tandem with this, the United States and other Western countries will come to Geneva understanding quite well what Iran’s price is for them. And Rowhani was not shy about stating it.
“We say clearly we want to have the right to retain nuclear technology,” he said at the September 27 press conference. “We say clearly and openly we want this under the authority of the IAEA,” or International Atomic Energy Agency. “We say explicitly that we do not seek a bomb. We say explicitly that we believe the building of a bomb is dangerous for us - for our region.”
He promised “transparency,” adding, “We want to provide more assurances, if necessary, and they [Iran’s negotiating partners] want to ensure us they won’t undermine Iran’s peaceful nuclear progress.”
It was the one segment of the press conference during which the famously composed cleric appeared to get a bit worked up. Over some 80 minutes, Rowhani took each question methodically, even graciously from the large gaggle of reporters, his only body language the occasional swaying of his head left and right as he spoke. But he seemed adamant to say that Iran’s price for an agreement is an end to the demand for “zero enrichment” of uranium.
That demand has been a mainstay of U.S. rhetoric, if not policy, for years. But Obama’s breakthrough phone conversation with Rowhani on September 27, held as the Iranian sped off to JFK Airport and a flight back home, was followed quickly by a White House statement announcing the end of this era.
“I have made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations,” Obama said in the statement. “So the test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.
What’s on the table now is not a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment but the terms and conditions for international monitoring of that enrichment, some significant limits on its extent and protocols for international inspections to ensure that whatever enrichment is agreed upon will not enable Iran to divert uranium for nuclear weapons or quickly “break out” into nuclear weapons production.
Unfortunately for Israel, its position on this point remains frozen in time: zero-enrichment, and only zero-enrichment, is acceptable when it comes to Iran.
As one Israeli foreign ministry official put it to me, “Enrichment is unacceptable, period. Because we don’t believe it’s for peaceful purposes. Why would Iran need nuclear energy when they have the second largest oil reserves in the world?”
That is the case that Netanyahu will make to the General Assembly Oct. 1, when, following Rowhani and Obama’s star turns last week, he gives his own speech there.