Foreign ministers from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom met Dec.13 with Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, to open negotiations toward a long-term resolution of concerns surrounding Tehran’s nuclear programs. The United States offered cautious public support for the talks.
In a Dec. 16 interview, a European diplomat described the initial high-level discussions, which also included Javier Solana, the European Union’s high representative on foreign policy and security issues, as “more symbolic than substantive,” adding that no negotiations took place. The ministers left substantive issues to be hashed out by three working groups.
The working groups are tasked with developing proposals for cooperation on nuclear and non-nuclear technical projects as well as political and security issues. The groups will report to a steering committee, which will review the groups’ progress after three months. (See ACT, December 2004.) The groups have devised a rough schedule for monthly meetings, according to U.S. and European officials. Two working group meetings already took place in December.
The meeting was the result of a negotiating framework agreed to by Iran and the three European Union countries in November. At that time, Iran also agreed to suspend work on its uranium-enrichment program for the duration of the talks and to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of this suspension.
In the long-term negotiations, the European governments are seeking a permanent end to Tehran’s nuclear fuel efforts, particularly its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Iran originally agreed to suspend its enrichment activities in October 2003 but continued work on some elements of its centrifuge program.
European governments, as well as the United States, are concerned that Iran intends to produce its own nuclear materials not for peaceful purposes but to build nuclear weapons. While nuclear power plants usually employ low-enriched uranium, highly enriched uranium can provide the fuel for nuclear weapons, as can plutonium separated from irradiated nuclear fuel.
Iran also has begun construction of a heavy water research reactor, which could provide a source of weapons-grade plutonium. Western concerns have been heightened by a more than two-year old IAEA investigation which revealed that Iran conducted a variety of covert nuclear activities. (See ACT, December 2004.)
Persuading Iran to renounce permanently its ambitions to develop an independent nuclear fuel cycle will almost certainly be difficult. The November agreement states only that the final agreement will include “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Tehran, however, has not articulated its version of objective guarantees and has repeatedly said the suspension must be temporary, although some Iranian officials have hinted at the possibility of compromise. (See ACT, November 2004.)
Rowhani stated Dec.12 that Tehran “will continue the talks if we feel that they are progressing,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported, but Iranian officials have indicated that they want the talks to be concluded quickly. Official statements concerning an exact timeline have been ambiguous but indicate that Iran will give the talks at least several months.
Although several U.S. officials have expressed skepticism that Iran will adhere to its suspension agreement, Washington is publicly supporting the negotiating process. Apparently countering speculation that Washington will take a harder line on Tehran, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Dec.1 that talk of military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities is “irresponsible.” Armitage later downplayed the prospects for a successful regime change strategy, saying Dec. 20 that the Iranian opposition would not necessarily “eschew nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Colin Powell was more direct in a Dec.10 speech in the Netherlands, reiterating that “U.S. policy is not to advocate regime change in Iran.”
However, tensions between the United States and the Europeans could increase as a February IAEA Board of Governors meeting approaches. The board adopted a resolution in late November that emphasizes the suspension’s importance but does not specify any consequences if Iran violates the agreement. The resolution, however, does request IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to notify board members if Tehran either fails to implement the suspension or impedes IAEA monitoring.
A State Department official told Arms Control Today that the timing of the next Euro-Iran steering committee meeting, which will probably occur in March, could complicate any U.S. proposals for the IAEA to take action if Iran violates the suspension. The Europeans might argue that such efforts will undercut ongoing diplomacy, the official said.
Washington has repeatedly pushed for resolutions that take a harder line on Iran at past board meetings but has failed to persuade the other board members to agree.
The United States also continues to express concern that Iran is pursuing covert nuclear activities. U.S. Ambassador Jackie Sanders told the IAEA board Nov. 29 that Washington wants Iran “immediately” to provide access to Iran’s Parchin military complex, which U.S. officials believe might have facilities that could be used to test conventional high explosives for use in an implosion-type nuclear weapon. The IAEA has not yet received permission to visit, the State Department official said Dec. 16. (See ACT, October 2004.)
Washington failed to persuade the board to adopt language giving the IAEA expanded authority to inspect Iranian facilities. Instead, the November resolution requests that Iran “provide any access deemed necessary by the Agency” in accordance with Iran’s additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement.
Safeguards agreements require states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to allow the IAEA to monitor their declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use. Additional protocols augment the agency’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities, but there are limits to the agency’s ability to inspect military facilities. Tehran has signed an additional protocol and has agreed to abide by its provisions until Iran’s parliament ratifies the agreement.
On the trade front, Washington’s lack of enthusiasm for engagement with Iran could also complicate the negotiations. The suspension agreement states that the Europeans “will actively support the opening of Iranian accession negotiations” at the World Trade Organization (WTO). A State Department official told Arms Control Today Dec. 20 that the Europeans wanted a WTO General Council meeting earlier in the month to call for negotiations to begin, but the U.S. delegation said that Washington is not ready to move forward on the matter. U.S. support is necessary because the WTO makes decisions by consensus.