Press Contact: Kelsey Davenport, Nonproliferation Analyst, (202) 463-8270 x102
Updated: November 2013
Diplomatic initiatives to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue have produced several proposals for a negotiated settlement or to build confidence between Iran and the international community. Thus far, none of those proposals have gained acceptance from all of the involved parties and efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program continue. As Iran progresses down a path towards a nuclear-weapons capability, the difficulties in finding a compromise that would protect against a nuclear-armed Iran while being acceptable to the leadership in Tehran have grown.
Tehran devised a number of these proposals between 2003 and 2005, some of which included provisions to initially limit operations at its key nuclear facilities and implement transparency measures for its nuclear activities. Iran's IAEA envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh said during a September 2011 Arms Control Today interview however, that those proposals are "obsolete." Since that time, proposals offered by Iran have generally not addressed concerns that it is seeking a nuclear-weapons capability.
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the EU3) also offered Iran several proposals to resolve the nuclear issue during negotiations with Iran in 2004 and 2005. China, Russia, and the United States joined the three European countries in 2006 as part of a format known as the “P5+1”—in reference to the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—offering similar comprehensive proposals to Iran. The P5+1 have described their negotiations with Tehran regarding these proposals as one track of a “dual track strategy” to address Iran’s nuclear program. The second track consists of Security Council resolutions which impose sanctions on Iran and demand that it suspend all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, as well as construction of a heavy water reactor.1 The West fears that Iran might enrich uranium to high levels necessary for use in nuclear weapons, or reprocess spent nuclear fuel to acquire plutonium for weapons.
Recent initiatives have focused more on short-term confidence-building measures rather than a negotiated agreement resolving the nuclear issue, with the goal of bridging the trust deficit between the two sides before entering more difficult and long-term negotiations.
Spring 2003 Proposal
According to Tim Guldimann, former Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Iran issued a proposal to the United States in May 2003 calling for negotiations on a variety of contentious issues between the two countries. The document listed a number of agenda items that the two countries would negotiate and proposed the creation of three parallel working groups to carry out negotiations on disarmament, regional security, and economic cooperation. Key among the agenda items were:
The Bush administration dismissed the proposal in favor of placing additional pressure on Iran.
Several months later, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom agreed to discuss with Iran a range of nuclear, security, and economic issues as long as Tehran suspended work on its uranium enrichment program and cooperated fully with an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, that agreement unraveled the following year when Tehran continued work on uranium conversion, the precursor to enrichment. Iran then agreed with the EU3 in November 2004 to implement a more stringent suspension. Negotiations between the two sides began shortly afterward.
Iran presented four proposals during the course of these negotiations. In addition to Iran’s nuclear program, the proposals covered subjects such as Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations, regional security issues, and economic cooperation.
The Iranian proposals were as follows:
January 17, 2005 This Iranian proposal to the EU3/Iran Political and Security Working Group outlined commitments on both sides in general terms, including:
The Iranian proposal to the EU3/Iran steering committee in March provided greater detail into the “objective guarantees” Iran was willing to discuss regarding its nuclear program, including:
In April Iran’s proposal repeated some of the items in the March proposal, but focused more on short-term confidence-building measures than long term resolutions. Its key terms included:
Iranian Message from Hassan Rowhani, then-Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, to France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In his statement Rohani proposes:
In August 2005 the three European countries presented their own comprehensive proposal for a long-term agreement, outlining the following:
Iran rejected that proposal days later, claiming that it did not recognize Iran’s right to enrichment. Tehran proceeded with uranium conversion, breaking the suspension agreement with the EU3 and ending negotiations.
In order to support Iran’s talks with the EU, Russia proposed to Iran in October 2005 that Tehran share ownership of a uranium-enrichment plant located in Russia. Following months of discussions on that proposal, Iran ultimately rejected it in March 2006.
China, Russia, and the United States joined the three EU3 countries in June 2006 to offer another proposal for comprehensive negotiations with Iran. The proposal mirrored some of the previous offers for negotiations and included the following key points:
Tehran responded to this proposal in August 2006. It rejected the terms of the proposal due to its requirement that Iran suspend its enrichment-related activities, but noted that the proposal contained “useful foundations and capacities for comprehensive and long-term cooperation between the two sides.” It did not, however, identify what those useful foundations were.
In March 2008, the P5+1 agreed to “repackage” the June 2006 proposal in order to specify some of the benefits that they would offer Iran as part of a long-term agreement on its nuclear program and to better demonstrate the nature of those benefits to the Iranian public. This agreement to revise the 2006 proposal coincided with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1803, the third UN sanctions resolution on Iran.
Before that package was formally submitted to Iran, however, Tehran issued its own proposal to the six-country group. While the Iranian proposal also called for comprehensive negotiations leading to cooperation on nuclear energy, and political and economic concerns, it offered very few details regarding the steps Iran would take to resolve concerns related to its nuclear program. Some of its key provisions were:
The P5+1 group presented their revised package during a June 2008 meeting in Tehran which included participants from five of the six countries, excluding the United States. During the meeting, the six-countries relayed an understanding that preliminary talks could begin under a six-week “freeze-for-freeze” period in which Iran would halt the expansion of its enrichment program while the six countries would agree not to pursue additional sanctions against Tehran. The proposal also entailed:
Representatives of the six-country group, including the United States for the first time, followed up the June meeting with a meeting in July 2008 in Geneva. At the meeting, Iran issued a non-paper proposing a process for negotiations, highlighting that such discussions would be “based on the commonalities of the two packages” issued by Iran and the P5+1 group in May and June. Both the P5+1 and Iranian proposals called for political, economic, and security cooperation but the Iranian proposal did not address steps that Tehran would take in regard to its nuclear program. The Geneva discussions were inconclusive.
Following the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, who sought to abandon the previous U.S. policy requiring Iran to fulfill UN Security Council demands to suspend nuclear fuel cycle activities prior to negotiations, the P5+1 sought to renew their negotiations with Iran. They issued a statement in April 2009 in which the other five countries welcomed “the new direction of U.S. policy towards Iran,” formally inviting Iran to talks once again.
Iran did not respond to that invitation until that September, when Tehran issued a revised proposal. Although that proposal repeated several of the provisions of the one Iran issued in 2008, it did not include a section on the nuclear issue. Instead, the proposal covered the following:
Tehran Research Reactor “Fuel Swap” Proposal
In June 2009, Iran informed the IAEA that it was seeking assistance to refuel its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a U.S.-supplied 5 megawatt research reactor that produces medical isotopes. Following Iran’s entreaty, the United States proposed that, in return for a supply of 120 kilograms of fuel for the TRR, Iran ship out an equivalent amount of uranium enriched to 4%, totaling about 1,200 kilograms. The 1,200 kilograms accounted for roughly 80% of Iran’s LEU stockpile at that time, a percentage that diminished as Iran continued to produce LEU. At an initial meeting between the United States, France, Russia, Iran, and the IAEA October 1, 2009, Iranian officials agreed “in principle” to the exchange.
Following reservations expressed by Iran about the terms of the deal, the P5+1 indicated their readiness to take some steps to facilitate the arrangement:
In the months following the initial agreement of the TRR proposal Oct.1, Iran delayed giving the IAEA and the P5+1 a definitive response to the proposal, with many prominent Iranian politicians voicing their opposition to the arrangement, motivated at least in part by their opposition to President Ahmadinejad. Iranian officials publicly suggested alterations to the fuel swap proposal, including: staggering the export of Iran’s LEU over the course of a year or transporting 400 kilograms of LEU to Iran’s Kish Island to exchange for TRR fuel. These proposals, however, undermined or eliminated the confidence-building nature of the export of the bulk of Iran’s LEU. Tehran began to increase the enrichment level of some of its LEU to 20% in February 2010, ostensibly for TRR fuel.
Brazil, Turkey, Iran Tehran Declaration
Brazil and Turkey carried out a diplomatic initiative in the Spring of 2010 to broker the TRR fuel swap with Iran. In an April 20 letter to the leaders of the two countries, President Obama said Iran’s agreement to export 1,200 kilograms of LEU “would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile.” The initiative resulted in the May 17 Tehran Declaration agreed between Presidents Lula da Silva, Erdogan, and Ahmadinejad.
France, Russia, and the United States rejected the Tehran Declaration on a number of grounds identified in a June 9 letter to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. The key critique was that the declaration did not address Iran’s production of 20%-enriched uranium and Iran’s accumulation of a larger amount of LEU.
Russian Step-by-Step Proposal
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov first publicly proposed a “road map” to implement the P5+1’s proposed incentives package July 12, 2011 during a speech in Washington. The proposal itself has not been made public, but its key elements have been described by former Iranian deputy nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian.
Other P5+1 members have not voiced public opposition to the Russian proposal, but some do not appear to support it in its current form. U.S. officials have said that Washington is studying the proposal, and have held meetings with Moscow regarding the plan. Similarly, Iran publicly welcomed the proposal but has been non-committal regarding its terms, claiming it would take several months to study.
In April 2012, the P5+1 and Iran renewed diplomatic negotiations in Istanbul. Two more rounds of talks were held May 23-24 in Baghdad, and June 18-19 in Moscow. The negotiators decided in Istanbul to adopt a step-by-step process with reciprocal actions, in order to create momentum towards a long-term solution. Two proposals are being discussed in the ongoing negotiations, one proposed by the P5+1 and another from the Iranians. Both sides agreed to expert-level talks, which took place in Istanbul on July 3, to discuss the technical aspects of each proposal. A fourth round of top-level political meetings has not yet been scheduled.
Iran and the P5+1 held talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan April 5-6. The two sides had resumed negotiations in Almaty in February 2013 after a nine-month interval. Each side brought a proposal to the April talks, but failed to reach consensus on a way forward and no further meetings were scheduled.
Iran’s proposal on day 1 of the April Almaty talks was similar to the five-step proposal Tehran brought to the negotiations in 2012. However, after the P5+1 expressed dissatisfaction with this proposal, which it viewed as a step backward, Iran revised its proposal for the second day of talks.
The P5+1 proposal was based on the proposal from the 2012 negotiations. The 2013 proposal, however, leaves open the possibility of resuming activities at Fordow, allows Iran to keep part of its stockpile or uranium enriched to 20 percent, and provided some sanctions relief.
Fall 2013 Proposal
Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 resumed in Geneva on October 15-16. Iran was represented by its new negotiating team, headed by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Iran presented a new proposal during the talks. The proposal outlined the broad framework for a comprehensive end-state agreement and specific steps for each side to take in a first-phase agreement.
The parties continued negotiating the specifics of the proposal during two subsequent rounds of talks in Geneva on November 7-10 and November 20-24. On November 24, Foreign Minister Zarif and Catherine Ashton, head of the P5+1 negotiating team, signed the proposal, known as the Joint Plan of Action.
The actions specified under the first-phase of the Joint Plan of Action have a duration of six months. The agreement can be extended if Iran and the P5+1 agree to renew it “by mutual consent.”
The agreement also establishes a Joint Commission, comprised of participants from all seven countries, to monitor implementation of the deal and to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the investigation and verification measures that the agency will undertake.
The first-phase agreement also lays out the goal of reaching a comprehensive solution. It details elements of a comprehensive deal, following the principle “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”
1. To date, the UN Security Council has adopted six resolutions in response to Iran’s nuclear program. The council first demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities with the adoption of resolution 1696 in July 2006. The following three resolutions, 1737 adopted in December 2006, 1747 adopted in March 2007, and 1803 adopted in March 2008, imposed incremental sanctions on Iranian persons and entities believed to have been involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. Resolution, 1835, adopted in September 2008, reiterated the demands made in resolution 1696 without imposing additional sanctions. The UN Security Council significantly expanded sanctions in June 2010 with the adoption of Resolution 1929.