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Rare optimism in Iran nuclear dispute
by Staff Writers
Almaty, Kazakhstan (AFP) Feb 28, 2013

Iran exiles demand UN guarantee safety in Iraq
Geneva (AFP) Feb 28, 2013 - The United Nations must guarantee the safety of 3,000 Iranian opposition members in Iraq who have come under armed attack there, their leader said Thursday.

Maryam Radjavi, head of the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, told a meeting organised by human rights campaigners at the UN's Geneva offices that the world body had failed in its duty to her group.

"If the United Nations had fulfilled its obligations, this could have been avoided," Radjavi said, referring to a February 9 mortar and rocket attack which claimed seven lives and wounded dozens.

Radjavi said she had sent a string of letters to the UN's envoy in Iraq, Martin Kobler, warning him repeatedly that the Mujahedeen were under threat.

The group was founded in the 1960s to oppose the shah of Iran, and took up arms against Iran's clerical rulers after the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the monarch.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gave the group a save haven, but he was overthrown in a US-led invasion in 2003, and the group has since then faced antipathy from pro-Iranian elements in Iraq.

Under a 2011 UN-brokered deal, the Mujahedeen were moved from their longstanding base at Camp Ashraf near the Iranian border to another site named Camp Liberty.

The goal of the transfer to Camp Liberty was to pave the way for the Mujahedeen to leave Iraq outright, with a view to resettling them in the United States and Europe.

"The only option is for all the residents to be transferred to the United States," said Radjavi.

"Otherwise, they should be returned to Ashraf until they can settle in a thrid country."

The Mujahedeen argue that Camp Ashraf is safer for them because the site is larger and has concrete buildings, while those at Camp Liberty are wooden.

The Mujahedeen's past attacks on Westerners saw them added to terror lists.

But they say they have now laid down their arms and are working to overthrow the Islamic regime in Tehran by peaceful means.

Britain struck the group off its terror list in June 2008, followed by the European Union in 2009 and the United States last September.

Struan Stevenson, a Scottish lawmaker responsible for the European Parliament's relations with Iraq, was in Geneva with Radjavi.

He expressed outrage that the UN's Human Rights Council, currently in session in Geneva, had been addressed by Iran's deputy foreign minister Akhonzadeh Basti.

"He was part of the team that assassinated Kazem Radjavi," he claimed, referring to the April 1990 slaying near Geneva of the brother of the Mujahedeen's founder.

Iran and world powers have concluded a surprisingly cordial summit in Kazakhstan that appears to have given a gentle nudge to the decade-long nuclear stalemate, experts say.

Two days of talks in the soaring Tien Shan mountain city of Almaty concluded on Wednesday amid continued sabre-rattling from Israel and worry on international oil markets about the prospects of yet another Middle East war.

But Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France -- plus Germany, did agree to hold new talks on the Islamic republic's disputed nuclear drive in the coming weeks.

Iran flatly denies charges that it is enriching uranium at an increasingly rapid pace in order to one day build a nuclear weapon.

But Israel and its main ally the US have few doubts this is exactly the case.

The issue has been debated on three prior occasions in the past year alone. The last meeting between Iran and the leading powers, known as P5+1, ended in June without the sides able to agree to meet again.

Things went differently this time. The meeting saw the leading powers offer Iran a softening of non-oil or financial sector-related sanctions in exchange for concessions over its uranium enrichment operations.

Encouraged by the possible sanctions relief, Tehran said the parties had agreed to hold their next meeting at the same venue on April 5-6, after talks between senior civil servants on the issue in Istanbul next month.

"Some of the points raised in their (the world powers') response were more realistic, compared to what they said in the past," chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili told reporters in words that amounted to rare praise.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad later added that "negotiations are better than confrontation", while Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said "things are taking a turning point".

The tone -- if not the actual content of what was achieved in Kazakhstan -- left some analysts both surprised and impressed.

"This is interesting because what we are seeing is the start of a process," said Moscow's PIR nuclear safety research institute analyst Andrei Baklitsky.

"The positions are slowly starting to merge. In other words, there are finally things there for them to discuss."

One analyst said the key was to break the initial ice and find a single issue around which future contacts could build.

"The most important development is that we might have a basis for further negotiation. In all previous talks, each side categorically dismissed the other's opening position," said Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute.

All sides agree there is little more time to waste and it is unclear what impact there will be from a looming June 2013 presidential vote in which Iranians will elect a successor to Ahmadinejad.

The sanctions are starting to bite at home and Jalili may be prepared to offer more flexibility if ordinary Iranians are starting to tire of their increasing isolation from the global economy.

US officials have been keen to call the Almaty session "useful" -- a more neutral word than either "positive" or "negative."

But they also pointed out that a good atmosphere during negotiations does not necessarily produce workable compromises.

"What matters are the results," a senior US official said.

"You care about the atmospherics, but in the end, you need concrete results," said the official.

And those -- in Washington's eyes -- would see Iran halt uranium enrichment to the 20-percent levels experts view as within striking distance of weapons-grade matter.

Iranians like Jalili argue that the West is not even making 20-percent enrichment an issue worthy of discussion at this stage -- a claim refuted by the US official.

Yet there is little doubt that the spirit of the discussion has changed.

"In past meetings, the approach centred on coercion: the main motivator for concessions was the threat of new sanctions and other escalatory steps," said National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi.

"That approach has failed as Iran responded with its own escalation: it expanded its enrichment activities, installed new and improved centrifuges and amassed more enriched uranium."

That policy ran the region toward the very real danger of Israeli action -- a convincing argument for a strategy shift.

Now the world powers appear to be willing to take the first step by offering sanctions relief, and may find a more responsive Iran in return, experts say.

"Jalili's positive, conciliatory statements today represent a meaningful shift away from that pattern of mutual disdain," said Joshi.

"It makes it more likely that Iran will, in due course, be able to come up with a more realistic counter-offer."


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