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Iranian Crisis: Progress, Problems

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There was some good progress in Thursday's international negotiation sessions with Iran on its nuclear program. But anyone who imagines the problem is solved is quite delusional.

Let's focus first on the positive from Geneva.

Contrary to much posturing by Iran and its advocates around the world, the Tehran regime's envoy did discuss its very controversial nuclear program with the representatives of the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany, and the European Union.

President Barack Obama said that Iran has two weeks to follow through on beginning commitments made in Thursday's negotiations in Geneva.

Not only did Iran discuss its nuclear program -- and its previously secret nuclear facility next to a Revolutionary Guards military base outside Qom -- it agreed to prompt inspections of the underground facility by officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This pleased IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who said during the week that Iran has been "outside the law" with regard to its nuclear program in general and especially this previously secret facility.

Iran had agreed to notify the IAEA when it begins construction of nuclear facilities, but then reneged on the agreement, as ElBaradei and others have lately noted.

And Iran's nuclear program is in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev forcefully pointed out last weekend.

So on Thursday, Iran agreed to allow IAEA inspectors into the previously undisclosed nuclear facility.

Participants in Thursday's nuclear negotiations with Iran gathered in a villa in Geneva, Switzerland.

Iran also said that it would send nuclear materials needed for medical purposes to Russia and France for further nuclear enrichment. Which may establish a good precedent.

And Iran agreed to meet again this month to further discuss its nuclear program.

All this was in stark contrast to the long-range missile launches on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and various denials of any intent to discuss its nuclear program, accompanied by red-hot rhetorical promises of the end of Israel, that emanated from the Iranian regime during the run-up to the sessions in Geneva.

Of course, as I noted in my preview piece here on the Huffington Post on Wednesday, Iran also put out some vague statements that suggested it would discuss its nuclear program, albeit in a backdoor way.

As it happens, the discussion came through the front door.

So all this is good progress, a promising sign, especially since peace is better than war, and that is likely what Iran would have gotten from Israel had it completely stonewalled in the Geneva talks.

Should nuclear negotiations with Iran fail, the Obama Administration plans strict sanctions on Iran's energy, telecommunications, and finance sectors.

Before proceeding further, let's look at why that might be.

Israel is a very small country. And its actions are at times quite problematic. As we see in the current negotiations over Palestine with the Obama Administration, which wants Israel to stop ongoing West Bank settlements by religious fundamentalists. Or anyone else, for that matter.

But, with regard to Israel, as the old joke goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Israel is the only nation with nuclear weapons in the Middle East. It has those weapons because it might otherwise be over-run by its many enemies in the region.

And Israelis believe that an Iran with nuclear weapons is a game-changer.

Iran, though oil-rich, is not a rich country. In large part because the Islamic fundamentalist revolution effected by the Ayatollah Khomeini caused a brain drain, especially amongst those with technical expertise. That's why Iran is vulnerable with regard to gasoline, much of which it must import due to its lack of refinery capacity.

But Iran is a populous country, with some 75 million people.

Israel is a small country, with only seven million people.

It's not likely that Israel would survive a nuclear war.

Which, while a prospect that I'm sure would make some readers very happy, is obviously unacceptable to any American administration.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leads a crowd in a chant of "Death to Israel!"

Iran, whose leaders' rhetoric often suggests a messianic and apocalyptic point of view and encourages weekly chants of "Death to Israel," might survive a nuclear war.

So Israel is, not surprisingly, deeply opposed to Iran becoming a nuclear power.

As are, actually, many Arab nations, which do not want to see an ascendant Persian power in the Middle East. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, some Arab nations will want them, too. And the world's biggest powder keg becomes all the more potentially explosive.

But let's go back to the positive.

After early signs of bombastic defiance, Iran is now openly discussing its nuclear program with the Western powers and Russia and China.

And Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, according to the Israeli press, is content for now for the diplomatic process to unfold.

But President Barack Obama, who has long advocated diplomatic engagement with Iran, even though his Democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton and Republican general election opponent John McCain were harshly critical of him for it, says that his patience is not endless.

In fact, his patience seems to run out around New Year's Eve.

Which brings us to some problems. Keeping in mind that this negotiation, which Iran has delayed, as it was to have been completed by the end of September, is in a very early stage.

It's great that Iran is going to finally allow IAEA inspectors in to the Revolutionary Guards-protected facility outside Qom. But it isn't complete and is not in operation. We don't really know what's going on in that facility until it's operational.

It's also great that Iran has agreed to have further nuclear enrichment for medical isotopes done by Russia and France. But the details have to be worked out. And is that the extent of further enrichment activities?

Indeed, with regard to inspections, the previously secret facility outside Qom is only one. To be certain that Iran is not moving further towards developing nuclear weapons, Iran will have to take its leash off IAEA inspectors and allow anytime inspections in all its facilities.

And we will need to be sure that we are aware of all Iranian nuclear facilities.

Thursday's negotiations in Geneva were a promising start. But only that.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.