Opportunity knocks for Obama to get Iran talks back on track

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A multifront campaign to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon has been stalled for months by the distractions of a U.S. presidential campaign, Tehran's stop-and-go negotiating tactics and its role in deadly clashes in Syria and Gaza. Now that President Barack Obama has been re-elected and Iran's influence with Middle East neighbors seems to be fading, Tehran is expected back at the negotiating table soon and, some observers believe, in a more constructive mood to resolve the nuclear standoff.

The Obama administration now has wider latitude for tackling one of its most complicated relationships. No longer shackled by the hawkish politicking of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama could make an overture to Tehran to get negotiations back on track at a time when Iranian leaders need a face-saving escape from withering sanctions.

Multinational talks with Iran on its nuclear ambitions have been idle since June, as Tehran has refused to accede to the demands of foreign diplomats that it cease enriching uranium even for peaceful purposes like power generation and production of medical isotopes. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, met Wednesday with diplomats from the six powers involved in the talks -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany -- and was exchanging missives with Tehran about a possible resumption of talks in December, EUobserver.com reported Friday.

"If Obama wants to create a legacy in foreign policy, he has an opportunity to do that if he can resolve the Iran dilemma," said Iranian exile Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California engineering professor and former adviser to the U.S. State Department office responsible for technology issues. Even as Iran may be pushed by sanctions that have halved oil exports and sent its currency into a free fall, the all-stick-and-no-carrot approach to negotiations isn't likely to succeed, Mr. Meshkati said.

The ruling elite in Iran is untouched by the food shortages and soaring prices making life for average Iranians miserable, Mr. Meshkati said of his homeland.

"Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology and its advancement of enrichment are not based on calculated economic study," he said. "It's based on very complicated security calculations and other factors, like national pride."

Tehran is unlikely to engage in direct talks with U.S. diplomats without some inducement, he said. For example, he said, Washington could suspend the sanction preventing Iran from buying spare parts and maintenance services from U.S. suppliers for its aging fleet of Boeing aircraft. That would make civilian air travel safer, boost U.S.-made component sales and keep Iran as a U.S. aviation customer.

"Iran has said some element of enrichment is non-negotiable, that it's permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for civilian uses," Mr. Meshkati said. "They feel if they let that chip go that they will lose face. What do they have to show the Iranian people, who are struggling, if they come to the table to negotiate away something that is their right?"

The moves to resurrect negotiations may have been spurred by recent reports that Tehran has doubled the number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, though not all are operational.

International Atomic Energy Agency director general Yukiya Amano said in a report this month that the harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union appeared to be having no effect on Iran's pace of fuel production.

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