WASHINGTON – As at least two days of talks on the future of Iran’s nuclear program got underway in Baghdad on Wednesday, neo-conservatives and other hawks escalated their campaign against any compromise agreement, particularly one that would permit Tehran to continue enriching uranium on its territory.

Fearful that the US and the other members of the so-called P5+1 (“Iran Six” – Britain, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) will strike an interim accord with Tehran under which it would agree to limit its uranium enrichment to 5%, they argued that Iran should instead be forced to comply with a 2006 United Nations Security resolution calling for it to stop enriching altogether – a position that most Iran experts here believe is certain to kill any prospect for progress.

“Given the Iranian regime’s long-standing pattern of deceptive and illicit conduct, we believe that it cannot be trusted to maintain enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future – at least until the international community has been fully convinced that Iran has decided to abandon any nuclear-weapons ambitions,” wrote three prominent pro-Israel senators in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

“We are very far from that point,” according to Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman, the so-called “Three Amigos”, who often travel overseas together and have long argued that US military action will likely be the only way to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Tehran has consistently denied that is developing a nuclear weapons program, and insists that it has the right to enrich uranium under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory.

At the same time, two fellows at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) published an op-ed in the Washington Post warning against any agreement by the P5+1 that would permit Iran to enrich uranium up to 5% on its own territory rather than suspend all enrichment indefinitely.

Such a deal, according to FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz and former Central Intelligence Agency operative Reuel Marc Gerecht, could result in the accumulation by Iran of enough fissile material to build a bomb and thus jeopardize Israel’s security.

“A new red line at 20% enrichment would leave Jerusalem two options: strike [Iran’s nuclear facilities] or give up,” they wrote. “For those who fear another conflagration in the Middle East, that ought to be a compelling reason to hang tough in Baghdad.”

Meanwhile, neo-conservatives at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who played a key role in mobilizing media and elite support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, released several new studies, apparently timed for Wednesday’s talks, one of which asserted that Iran could produce enough 90% weapons-grade uranium within 42 days.

“Any outcome that does not include the verifiable dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and the removal of all nuclear material – at any level – will allow Iran to retain the ability to acquire nuclear weapons fuel in short order,” the study asserted.

A second study, by four AEI fellows, outlined Iran’s longstanding support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and alleged backing for the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“One of the greatest mistakes the United States can make is to imagine that Iranian activities in a given arena – the nuclear program, for example – are isolated from Iranian undertakings in another,” it concluded, suggesting the administration of President Barack Obama was too focused on reaching a nuclear accord.

The latest neo-conservative blitz came amid renewed optimism that progress could be made during the Baghdad talks, which followed an initial round of talks last month in Istanbul.

During Wednesday’s sessions, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, reportedly exchanged proposals with his P5+1 counterparts and then met separately in bilateral talks with the Russian and Chinese representatives.

Prospects for progress were buoyed on Tuesday by reports that the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukio Amano, had reached an agreement in principle with Jalili during a visit to Tehran on Sunday on how to clear up longstanding questions about alleged activities by Iranian scientists in the past that could be relevant to building a nuclear weapon.

Clearing up those questions, which include allegations that Iran tested a nuclear triggering device in a special chamber at its Parchim military base, has been widely seen as a essential element for any comprehensive accord between Iran and the P5+1 on Tehran’s nuclear program.

In the run-up to the Baghdad meeting, Iranian officials suggested that they were prepared to make a number of concessions – including suspending their 20% enrichment program and possibly transferring their stockpile of 20% enriched uranium out of the country, and ratifying the IAEA’s Additional Protocol that would permit the agency’s officials to conduct much more intrusive inspections, as well as clearing up pending questions about its past activities – depending on what was offered by the other side.

After the Istanbul meeting, Western officials suggested there could be some easing of economic sanctions against Iran – in particular, delaying an end-of-June deadline set by the European Union (EU) for a boycott of Iranian oil and Iran’s central bank by its members – as part of an interim agreement that they said might also include the suspension of all operations at Iran’s Fordow enrichment facility.

But during the past week, US and Western diplomats appear to have taken a harder line. As of Wednesday, the only “carrots” reportedly on offer were swapping the 20% stockpile for fuel rods that could be used by Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor, providing safety measures and upgrades for Tehran’s other nuclear facilities, permitting it to buy spare parts for its aging commercial air fleet; and suspending a pending EU ban on insurance for ships carrying Iranian oil, a measure that would permit Asian refiners to continue buying oil from Iran.

Whether those will be sufficient to induce Iran to make the kinds of concessions the West hopes for – or whether the P5+1 is prepared to put more on the table on Thursday – is an open question.

In any event, US officials have also suggested that Washington recognizes Iran’s right to enrichment for civilian purposes and is prepared to accept Iran’s continuing enrichment up to 5% as part of an interim or final accord. That position has been strongly opposed by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran unless it dismantles its enrichment program altogether.

“They have to stop all enrichment,” Netanyahu told CNN on the eve of the Baghdad talks, adding that Iran should also be compelled to “dismantle the underground bunker” at Fordow.

Neo-conservatives and other hawks here have faithfully echoed that position with growing urgency as the Baghdad meeting approached, arguing that any enrichment by Iran at this point would result in a nuclear-arms “capability” that should be considered unacceptable.

On Monday, the senate, led by Lieberman and Graham, passed new sanctions legislation that described nuclear “capability” as constituting a “threat” to the United States and called for the administration to use “military planning” as one tool to prevent Iran from obtaining that capability.

Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

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