November 15, 2013 in Nation/World

Iran nuclear program nearly halted, watchdog agency reports

Paul Richter McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON – Iran’s new government has slowed expansion of its nuclear program almost to a halt since August, according to the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, in what experts view as a strong signal of Iran’s desire to resolve a decade-long diplomatic standoff.

A report released Thursday by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency provides the first independent evidence that President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June after promising to end the crisis, has essentially stopped new work at Iran’s nuclear facilities, including enrichment of uranium and construction of the heavy-water reactor at Arak.

The previously unreported freeze may bolster the Obama administration and others in the six-nation diplomatic bloc hoping to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear drive for good. The two sides are scheduled to resume negotiations Wednesday in Geneva.

Three days of talks in Geneva last week nearly produced an interim deal in which the West would suspend some economic sanctions and Iran would stop some nuclear work to buy time for negotiations aimed at forging a final deal. But the proposal drew heavy fire from hawks in Congress, Israel and parts of the Arab world who insisted the West should add more pressure, not less, to force concessions from Iran.

In a news conference Thursday at the White House, President Barack Obama urged Congress not to impose more economic sanctions that could kill a diplomatic deal. Although he insisted a military option remains “on the table,” Obama expressed clear reservations about attacking Iran, warning that no one could predict the outcome of another U.S. war in the Middle East.

With sanctions slowly strangling Iran’s oil-based economy, Rouhani and his top aides have declared their eagerness to do a deal and thaw long-frozen relations with the West. The IAEA report provides a measure of tangible reassurance that Rouhani is serious, analysts said.

“It’s a signal that Iran’s more willing to be flexible on the issue,” said Alireza Nader, a Middle East specialist at Rand Corp. “It’s a positive sign.”

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