The new Iran talks: will both sides finally take the steps they have so far refused?

To no one’s surprise, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had only derision for the recently resumed nuclear talks with Iran, but for most the Iran debate has moved from the merits of a military attack to the key elements of a negotiated settlement.

Because of a five week gap between the opening meeting on April 14, of the “P5 plus one” (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) with Iran, and the next one scheduled for May 23, Mr. Netanyahu complains that Tehran has been granted “a five-week gift from the world to continue enriching uranium – without any limitation, any inhibition.”[i]

One wonders how many times it has to be repeated, but the fact remains that Iran can, as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) formally acknowledges, and will, as the Iranian leadership has made abundantly clear, continue enriching uranium, not only for five weeks, but indefinitely. However, contrary to the complaint, echoed by US Republicans,[ii] such enrichment is not without limits. There are already limits imposed by the NPT and it is the details of additional limits, and especially ways verifying compliance with them, that are the primary focus of the newly resumed talks.

The definition of what would constitute a successful outcome has shifted significantly. The Netanyahu demands are not the goal. He called on Iran, notwithstanding his own refusal to allow any inspection of any of Israel’s rather advanced (to put it more delicately than it deserves) nuclear programs, to take “immediate steps to stop all enrichment, take out all enrichment material, and dismantle the [Fordow heavily fortified underground] nuclear facility in Qom.” There was a time, under the George W. Bush Administration, when the United States and the Security Council insisted on similar demands, but reality can be ignored for only so long. The Administration of Barack Obama has for some time now acknowledged (implicitly if not always explicitly) that Iran does have the same right as any other state to enrich uranium, if, and this is the key qualifier, it meets its responsibilities under the NPT.[iii] The international community more broadly has also come to the inevitable conclusion that Iran, a state with advanced scientific knowledge and a decades-long nuclear program, will ultimately not be stopped from enriching uranium or from acquiring other nuclear fuel cycle technologies relevant to bomb making. The knowledge to build a bomb is not prohibited; building a bomb is prohibited.[iv]

The challenge is to get Iran to also face some hard realities – namely, that it cannot be free of sanctions and other punitive measures until it fully acknowledges, cooperates with, and abides by the international community’s mandated right, not to mention obligation, to set verifiable limits and conditions on enrichment and other weapons-relevant elements of its nuclear program, and to receive credible disclosures and explanations regarding Iran’s earlier clandestine activities.

By now the basic outlines of an agreement that would affirm Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program and at the same time meet the international community’s verification requirements are well known.[v]

As to the verifiable limits imposed on enrichment, the most basic one is obviously a prohibition on enrichment to bomb grade levels – a limit that Iran has to date honored.[vi] However, because of the continuing uncertainty about its ultimate intentions, the international community will justifiably demand that Iran also end all enrichment to the 20 percent level.[vii] That is still well below bomb grade uranium, but it is uncomfortably close and, at least until the international community can be fully confident that Iran will not pursue bomb grade enrichment, for Iran to have a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium is unacceptable. Hence, there will also be efforts to revive earlier proposals which would see Iran shipping its 20 percent enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for access to fuel for its research reactor, which produces medical isotopes. And there is speculation that Iran will now be open to such an arrangement, given that the Iranian delegation to the April session is reported to have described the failure to agree in 2009 to a similar deal as a “missed opportunity.”[viii]

So the international community can now be expected to accept Iranian enrichment to 3-5 percent enrichment. There will, at the same time, be strong calls on Iran not to do its enriching in the heavily fortified Fordow facility. Significant enrichment at that site, the argument goes, would allow Iran in the future to expel all International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and then proceed relatively quickly to enrich to bomb grade levels in a facility that would be beyond both international diplomacy and military action. Iran is certain to resist keeping enrichment out of Fordow, and if it persists the international community will be hard pressed to maintain a united front on that demand.

But the international community will be, and should be, united and resolute in requiring Iran to meet the very highest levels of transparency and accountability, and thus to allow maximum access by IAEA inspectors. That will especially mean that Iran will be required to operate under the conditions of the IAEA Additional Protocol, a mechanism, which Iran has signed but not ratified, providing much more extensive access to declared and suspected nuclear sites.

In addition, Iran will have to respond to IAEA questions regarding past Iranian activity that appears to have had a specific weapons focus. Central to this would be IAEA access to the Parchin military site at which, according to intelligence reports received by the IAEA from a member state, presumably the United States, Iran may have conducted explosive experiments relevant to triggering a nuclear explosion.[ix]

What is Iran to get in return for meeting these various demands and conditions? The big gain will be the same freedom from punitive counter-measures that other uranium-enriching states enjoy – that is, the freedom to enrich uranium to low, non-weapon levels, under strict IAEA inspections. For that to happen, Iran’s progressive increase in cooperation on the above demands will have to be matched by progressive withdrawals of economic and diplomatic sanctions and their ultimate removal.

There are of course other differences between elements of the international community, the US and Israel in particular, and Iran, notably Iran’s role in the conflicts in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. But if the renewed negotiations on nuclear issues are to bear any fruit they will have to remain focused on the nuclear question.

There have been welcome signs of Iranian cooperation.[x] In an op-ed article in the Washington Post, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, recently reinforced the Iranian Supreme Leader’s fatwa against the production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons.[xi]

Success will be measured by concrete results. To achieve those, both Iran and the international community, represented by the P5 plus one, will have to take steps they have heretofore refused to take.


[i] Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu: Istanbul talks gave Iran a ‘freebie’,” The Jerusalem Post, 15 April 2012.

[ii] Rachelle Younglai and Roberta Rampton, “U.S. lawmakers say Iran talks inadequate, urge more penalties,” Reuters, 16 Apr 2012.

[iii] DisarmingConflict, “Coming Clean – where the pressure on Iran belongs,” 01 October 2009.

David E. Sanger, “US May Drop Key Condition for Talks With Iran,” The New York Times, 14 April 2009.

[iv] The point has been argued in this space since at least 2007: DisarmingConflict, “Shifting the focus on Iran’s nuclear programs,” 12 November 2007.

See also: Ramesh Thakur, “To Stop Iran Getting the Bomb, Must We Learn to Live with Its Nuclear Capability?” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 36, No. 2, March-April 2012, pp. 326-332.

[v] Among those who have set out the essential compromises that will be required are:

Fareed Zakaria, “The shape of deal with Iran,” CNN, 15 April, 2012.

William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, “Envisioning a Deal With Iran,” The New York Times, 02 February 2012.

International Crisis Group, “In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, The Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey.”  Middle East and Europe Report N°116 – 23 February 2012.

[vi] It is true, of course, that the IAEA cannot definitively say that there are no clandestine enrichment or other nuclear activities in Iran or – that is, there is no way to prove a negative.

[vii] For uranium to be used as fuel in light water reactors its Uranium-235 content needs to be increased from its natural state of less than 1% to 3-5%, and for some research reactors up to just under 20% (any enrichment to these levels is regarded as low enriched uranium). Any enrichment over 20% is regarded as highly enriched uranium and approaches weapons grade uranium – although bombs of this type would normally use uranium enriched to around 90%.

[viii] Marcus George, “Iran says ready to resolve nuclear issues,” Reuters, 16 April 2012.

[ix] Michael Adler, “News Analysis: Debate Over Iran Shifts Away From Attack,” Arms Control Today, April 2012.

[x] “Iran says ready to resolve nuclear issues,” Reuters, 16 April 2012.

[xi] Ali Akbar Salehi, “Iran: We do not want nuclear weapons,” Washington Post, 12 April 2012.

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