News Analysis: Iranian Negotiators' Veiled Flexibility

Paul Kerr

In seeking to persuade Iran to cease completely its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have offered a combination of incentives and disincentives. So far, Iran has proven to be a tough negotiating partner, publicly insisting that it will pursue enrichment and threatening to end the negotiations if the Europeans demand a permanent cessation. Yet, Iranian officials’ actions and rhetoric aimed at domestic audiences suggest that Tehran may be more responsive to such a carrot-and-stick approach than their public statements suggest.

For more than 18 months, the Europeans and Iran have been seeking an agreement that would ease concerns that Tehran intends to develop nuclear weapons, as well as prevent the issue from being referred to the UN Security Council. Reaching a mutually acceptable agreement will require overcoming several obstacles. Most basically, European governments say that Iran should agree to end its program, while Tehran insists that it has the right to such activities under nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) provisions that support the peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy.

Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told reporters April 20 that Iran would end the negotiations if they “do not lead to a resolution in the next couple of months.”

Yet, in recent months and with little fanfare, Iran has tentatively taken a few steps toward the European position, suggesting that, although it still has the right to uranium enrichment, it will accept limitations on the size and scale of its program.

Uranium enrichment can produce both fuel for nuclear reactors and fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran claims that its program is peaceful, but the Europeans are concerned that Iran may be pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program. At the Europeans’ request, Iran has suspended the program for the duration of the talks.

In November, the two sides set out a framework for future talks in which they agreed to conclude a “mutually acceptable agreement” that includes “objective guarantees” that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Reaching an agreement on the details of such guarantees has been contentious. A working group has met to discuss the matter several times since beginning work last December. Two similar groups are discussing other technical, economic, and security issues. A steering committee met to review the progress of the working groups for the first time in March but achieved no breakthroughs. (See ACT, April 2005.)

The nuclear working group met April 19, but there was little movement on the proposals. It is widely believed that the talks are unlikely to make significant progress before Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 17.

Yet, evidence of Iran’s willingness to compromise can also be found in some Iranian officials’ statements intended for domestic consumption, as well as Tehran’s position on “objective guarantees.”

Carrots and Sticks
The NPT permits states-parties to possess uranium-enrichment facilities for civilian purposes as long as they are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. However, Iran’s European interlocutors want Tehran to cease its enrichment program completely, arguing that agency safeguards are insufficient to provide confidence that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Safeguards agreements allow the IAEA to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use.

The Europeans’ strategy, therefore, includes both positive and negative incentives for Iran to go beyond its safeguards requirements. The former include cooperation on a variety of security and economic matters, such as a trade agreement with the EU and cooperation on such issues as terrorism and drug trafficking.

As for negative incentives, the Europeans have stated that they will push the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council if Tehran restarts its enrichment program, stops participating in the negotiations, or ceases cooperation with the IAEA’s ongoing investigation of Iran’s nuclear activities.

The IAEA statute requires the board to notify the Security Council if a state-party to the NPT is found in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement. The Security Council may then take action against the offending state. The IAEA has already found several Iranian safeguards violations, but the United States has repeatedly failed in past attempts to persuade the board to support a Security Council referral, with European and other governments insisting that negotiations first be given a chance to succeed.

Iranian officials’ statements suggest that Tehran has been influenced by the incentives.

For example, Sirus Naseri, head Iranian delegate to the talks, made the case for Iran’s continued participation in the negotiations during a March appearance on Iranian television. Asked whether there are conditions under which Tehran will end the negotiations, Naseri argued that establishing such a “red-line” is “neither rational nor in the interests of the country.…If we give up [the talks], the country will sustain long-term fundamental damage.”

Rowhani defended Iran’s participation in the talks on similar grounds during a February appearance before university students. Observing that Iran’s “economic ties are linked to our political relations and international regulations,” Rowhani argued that Iran’s international economic relations are linked to the resolution of concerns regarding its nuclear program.

He also explained that Tehran’s decision to cooperate with the IAEA and the Europeans was necessary in order to disprove “American claims” that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran’s cooperation “can be an important factor in preventing America’s likely actions against Iran,” he added.

Additionally, Rowhani suggested that Iran’s cooperation is an effort to avoid an IAEA referral. “Right from the beginning, our aim was to prevent Iran’s [IAEA] dossier being [sic] referred” to the Security Council, he said, adding that Tehran cannot count on countries such as Russia and China to veto any council measures to penalize Iran.

Objective Guarantees
Although Iran has taken a hard line against cessation, it has suggested alternative ways to provide the Europeans with “objective guarantees.”

Iranian diplomats said at the March steering committee meeting that Tehran is willing to limit its enrichment program to an IAEA-monitored plant containing about 3,000 centrifuges—a facility considerably smaller than the plant Tehran first planned, which would have had more than 50,000 centrifuges. Iran currently has a pilot 164-centrifuge facility.

Tehran also proposed to allow “intrusive IAEA access” to some nuclear facilities, as well as ratify its additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. Tehran has signed such a protocol, which augments the agency’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities, and has agreed to abide by its provisions until Iran’s parliament ratifies the agreement.

Rowhani told the Financial Times April 18 that Tehran’s suggestions showed a willingness to compromise, given that Iran believes “implementation” of its additional protocol to be a sufficient guarantee of its peaceful intent. At least one Iranian diplomat had articulated this position in the past, but without explicitly offering to limit enrichment capabilities. Iran is “flexible” regarding its proposals, Rowhani said, adding that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the two sides could reach an agreement.

Additionally, current and former Iranian officials have suggested that other factors will prevent Iran from pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program, although the extent to which these suggestions represent official Iranian policy is unclear.

For example, Iran’s former chief delegate to the IAEA Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian television in February that if Tehran developed nuclear weapons it would need to test them, but could not do so without being detected. Computer-simulated nuclear tests would be of no value because Iran could not be confident that the data was valid, he added. Iran is a signatory to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has yet to enter into force.