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U.S. sanctions against Iran must be eased in order to convince the country not to escalate its nuclear program, and negotiations between the two countries should move forward quickly, several Middle East experts said Tuesday.
Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, which sponsored the panel discussion, said that the U.S. may have to accept that Iran will have "some enrichment capability" after negotiations.
The Iranian government has alleged that its nuclear program is peaceful, but the international community is concerned that the program could allow the country to develop nuclear weapons in an unstable region. The development of the Fordow plant inside an Iranian mountain, which began in 2006, has been a long-term concern, as has been the recent announcement that Iran is building new equipment at its Natanz nuclear site.
For the U.S., the regional conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Yemen should be a driving factor in reaching an agreement with Iran as soon as possible, Pollack said. If a deal is not reached, the U.S. will be left with a choice between going to war with Iran or living with the fact that it could have nuclear weapon capabilities, he said.
But Thomas Pickering, co-founder of the Iran Project, an independent nongovernmental entity devoted to improving diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and Iran, said it is important to avoid conflating different regional problems.
"If we're out to get [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad], are we, ipso facto, out to get Iran?" Pickering said.
Iran has supported the Syrian regime in its crackdown on civilian protests in the past. If the U.S. continues to support Syrians in their protests against Assad, Pickering thinks that Iran will view the U.S. as a threat to overhauling its regime.
Iran is holding a presidential election in June because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not permitted to run for a third term. During this transitional time, diplomacy efforts could be difficult, as the presidential inauguration is not held until fall.
At the same time, Pickering said Iran could have a dangerous amount of highly enriched uranium by the summer if it continues production, and that the Iranian government needs to agree to extensive inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The spread of nuclear weapons to other countries in the region is also a big concern for the U.S., Pollack said, particularly in terms of protecting Israel, where President Obama will travel next month.
Pollack noted that there has been fear that Saudi Arabia would construct nuclear weapons in response to Iran's buildup, but he said the Saudi government has too much at stake to go forward with nuclear weapons.
International negotiations will continue in Kazakhstan, next month, but Pickering doubts anything conclusive will come from it.
"I'd be very happy and very grateful to be surprised," he said.