Talks have begun in Istanbul between Iranian scientists and their counterparts from six major powers in an attempt to resolve an impasse over Iran’s nuclear aspirations, as both Tehran and Washington raised the military stakes in a perilous stand-off in the Gulf.
On Tuesday, the US was reported to have significantly increased its military presence in the region, doubling the number of its minesweepers while bringing in stealth warplanes in part as a deterrent to any Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf through which a fifth of the world’s oil supply flows each day.
As part of extensive war-games Iran test-fired medium-range missiles, capable of hitting US bases in the region or Israel. The parliament in Tehran meanwhile called an urgent debate on a bill to block at least some oil tankers in the Gulf, and there were reports that the leadership might be considering announcing a new, higher, level of uranium enrichment.
The talks in Istanbul were arranged to keep diplomatic channels open after high-level negotiations stalled in Moscow last month. The aim is ostensibly to explore whether a lack of understanding of the science involved in the opposing negotiating positions was blocking a compromise.
“The experts are there today to explain our position and respond to Iranian questions on a technical level,” a European diplomat said.
The UK and other members of a group of six world powers have also sent senior diplomats to gauge whether there has been any change to the Iranian position since an EU oil embargo came into force on Sunday.
The signals from Tehran however suggest a hardening of Iran’s stance. The parliament, the Majlis, called for a debate on a bill calling for the Strait of Hormuz to be closed to shipping from countries supporting sanctions against the country.
The foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, said that if the Majlis did call for such measures, the government would be obliged to follow its directives. It was unclear however, what the target of such measures might be as many pro-western countries have already stopped purchases of Iranian oil.
There were also signs that the leadership could be preparing to announce an increase in the level to which it enriches uranium. The Majlis called on the government to start building ships “not reliant on fossil fuels” – a clear reference to an announcement by the Iranian navy last month that it was planning to build nuclear-powered submarines.
Such vessels can use anything from the 20%-enriched uranium which Iran is currently making, to 90%, weapons-grade fuel. There were unconfirmed reports from Tehran on Monday that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was preparing to announce a new target for enrichment at some point between those two levels.
Such a move would be seen as provocative by much of the international community, as it would bring Iran far closer to the capacity to make the fissile core for a nuclear weapon. Tehran has insisted its nuclear aspirations are peaceful but the UN security council has demanded its uranium enrichment programme be suspended until it can prove its peaceful intent.
Israel has threatened to take military action against Iran’s nuclear sites, claiming that Tehran’s production of 20% uranium, much of it in an underground site, already represents an intolerable threat to its security. Israel is currently the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the US navy had doubled the number of its minesweepers in the Gulf to eight, as a signal to Iran that it would be able to reopen the Strait of Hormuz quickly if it was mined.
“The message to Iran is, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ ” an unnamed senior Pentagon official was quoted as saying. “Don’t even think about closing the Strait. We’ll clear the mines. Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the Gulf.”
The report also said that the US air force has been reinforcing its presence in the region since late spring, bringing in stealth F-22 and more conventional F-15C warplanes, giving it a greater ability to strike coastal anti-ship missile batteries as well as other targets further inland.
High-level diplomatic talks on the Iranian nuclear programme were suspended last month after a meeting between the six powers and Iran in Moscow. The six-nation group – comprising the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – offered a range of incentives if Iran stopped producing 20%-enriched uranium. Iran in response called for a complete lifting of all sanctions and international recognition of its right to enrich in principle, before it would discuss curbing its 20% enrichment.