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U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
U.S., Allies Await Iran's Response to Nuclear Offer

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Paul Kerr

On June 6, six countries, including the United States, offered a new package of incentives and disincentives to Iran designed to persuade it to end its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. As the month ended, Tehran was still studying the offer despite pressure from the other countries for a response. Iranian officials have indicated that Tehran will respond before the end of August.

China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States had agreed on the proposal during a June 1 meeting, one day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would participate directly in the negotiations. (See ACT, June 2006.)

The proposal marks the latest effort to induce Tehran to forswear uranium enrichment. Low-enriched uranium can be used in nuclear reactors, while highly enriched uranium (HEU) can also be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. According to a June 21 joint statement issued after a U.S.-European Union summit, the proposal offers Iran the chance to reach a “negotiated agreement based on cooperation” but states that “further steps” would be taken in the Security Council if the country refuses to cooperate.

The offer came as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei issued a report June 8 showing that Iran has still not complied with a nonbinding Security Council presidential statement adopted in March. That statement urged Tehran to take several steps, including suspending its enrichment program and increasing its cooperation with an IAEA investigation of its nuclear activities.

Iran suspended its enrichment program in late 2004 before beginning negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom designed to resolve international concerns about it. Those negotiations ended when Iran took several steps to renew enrichment-related activities beginning in August 2005.

First Things First

Describing the proposal to Arms Control Today, a Department of State official said the package of incentives is “negotiable,” but the conditions for resuming negotiations are not.

According to the proposal, Iran must take three steps before negotiations can begin. It must cooperate fully with the IAEA investigation, resume implementing the additional protocol to its agency safeguards agreement, and suspend “all enrichment-related” activities. The suspension would continue for the duration of the talks.

Additional protocols provide the agency with increased authority to detect clandestine nuclear programs, including by inspections of facilities that have not been declared to the IAEA. They supplement mandatory IAEA safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran has signed but not ratified its additional protocol. Tehran had been implementing the agreement but stopped doing so in February.

Iranian officials have indicated that Tehran is willing to cooperate with the IAEA investigation and implement its additional protocol. The suspension demand, however, will likely continue to be a sticking point.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi argued that the negotiations should proceed without “precondition,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported June 25. Iran has balked at suspending its research on centrifuges, although it has expressed a willingness to suspend industrial-scale enrichment. Iran has a pilot centrifuge facility and is constructing a larger commercial facility. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope.

According to the State Department official, Iran will not be permitted to operate its centrifuge facility, manufacture centrifuge components, or assemble centrifuges. However, it will be allowed to convert lightly processed uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride at the facility.

The official acknowledged that China and Russia may support a compromise proposal that would permit Iran to operate a very small number of centrifuges. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung also expressed similar sentiments in a June 28 interview with Reuters in which he said that Iran should be able to enrich uranium under appropriate “monitoring mechanisms.” To what extent this reflects the official position of the German government or the thinking of the five other countries is unclear.

The two sides have also jockeyed over an appropriate response date.

Rice said June 2 that Iran should respond within “weeks and not months,” but Tehran is still formulating its response. Asefi said June 25 that “several committees” are studying the proposal, IRNA reported. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated the previous day that Tehran has some “ questions” about the proposal but added that the offer had some “positive aspects” and that a “positive atmosphere has been created” for negotiations.

The six countries have warned Iran against dragging its feet. On June 29, foreign ministers from the Group of Eight (G-8), which includes five of the six countries as well as Canada, Italy, and Japan, called on Tehran to respond to the offer by July 5, when Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, is slated to meet in Europe with Ali Larijani, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator.

“We are disappointed in the absence of an official Iranian response to this positive proposal,” the G-8 members said in a statement. “We expect to hear a clear and substantive Iranian response” in the July 5 meeting, they said. China’s Foreign Ministry also urged Iran to respond “as soon as possible” to the proposal.

Washington believes that Tehran is delaying its response in order to buy time for further enrichment research, the official said, adding that Iran has likely not yet mastered the enrichment process.

Elaborating on the importance of the suspension, the official argued that allowing Iran’s enrichment research to continue could also improve Tehran’s negotiating position. Iranian officials have stated that such technical progress can be a source of bargaining leverage.

Asefi denied that Iran was stalling for time, explaining that “ Iran does not wish to make a rush decision.”

The suspension also is important because the international community “can judge very quickly” whether Tehran is complying, the official said, explaining that the other steps will take longer to implement.

According to the proposal, the six countries would adopt “proportionate measures if Iran refuses to negotiate.” These could include freezing the assets of certain Iranian officials and financial institutions, imposing embargos on weapons and gasoline trade, and suspending technical cooperation with the IAEA.

The Security Council would adopt resolutions to implement these measures “where appropriate,” the proposal says.

Washington believes that it has assurances from Moscow and Beijing that those governments will support “more vigorous” council action if Iran does not comply, the State Department official said. Whether this is truly the case is unclear. Both Beijing and Moscow continue to show a reluctance to support punitive Security Council action. The six countries began to finalize the offer in May after the five permanent members of the Security Council failed earlier in the month to agree on the text of a legally binding draft resolution on Iran’s nuclear program.

Proposal Details

All the countries involved have refused to disclose details about the offer, but administration officials, press reports, and leaked drafts of the proposal have described many of its elements. The proposal includes offers for joint nuclear and conventional energy projects, economic cooperation, and technology transfers to Iran.

Cautioning that the process of determining Tehran’s compliance with any final agreement “will take years,” the State Department official said that there is not a specific timetable for implementing any final agreement. But “incentives will begin to accrue” as the negotiations progress, the official said, adding that implementing some incentives, such as discussions about a proposed EU-Iranian conventional energy partnership, could begin in the near term.

Nuclear Cooperation

The proposal contains several provisions for providing Iran with nuclear energy, including multilateral ventures to provide a light-water nuclear power reactor, part ownership of a Russian enrichment facility, and a five-year “buffer stock” of enriched uranium stored under IAEA supervision.

Although Tehran has previously expressed interest in multilateral fuel-supply schemes, it has insisted on having a domestic enrichment capability as a hedge against possible supply disruptions.

The United States and the other parties have opposed any Iranian domestic centrifuge facilities. But they have now agreed that a final agreement would include a provision for reviewing the program’s suspension and permitting Iran to have a uranium-enrichment facility on its own territory.

This recent compromise appears to have limited significance. Both the IAEA Board of Governors and the Security Council would have to agree that “international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program has been restored, the proposal says. Requiring Security Council approval would, in effect, allow Washington to veto any future Iranian centrifuge facility.

The State Department official said that Iran would not be able to have its own enrichment facility for “many years.”

This provision may not satisfy Tehran, which has complained that Western countries, particularly the United States, have persistently opposed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear technology.

The new proposal appears designed to address some of Iran’s other stated concerns about past European nuclear cooperation offers.

For instance, Iran rejected an August 2005 proposal from the Europeans, complaining that it required Tehran to make short-term concrete concessions in return for vague promises of future rewards.

The new package contains some incentives similar to those described in that offer, but the language committing the six countries to participate is more concrete. For example, the August proposal says that the Europeans would “support” Iran’s acquisition of light-water reactors. But the new proposal’s language is more detailed and includes what appears to be a more-binding commitment.

Addressing another Iranian concern, the proposal says that if Iran complies with the resolution, the Security Council will “suspend discussion” of the nuclear program and will instead leave the matter to the IAEA board. Tehran prefers that the matter be handled by the agency because it lacks the Security Council’s authority to impose wide-ranging demands and penalties.

According to press reports and the State Department official, the United States would provide agricultural and telecommunications technology to Iran, as well as remove U.S. restrictions on aircraft manufacturers exporting civil aircraft to the country.

The administration agreed in March 2005 to allow export licenses for spare parts for Iranian civilian aircraft. (See ACT, April 2005.)

Whether and to what extent the package addresses security issues is unclear. A draft version contained a provision for a multilateral dialogue on regional security issues, but at least part of that provision has been removed, the State Department official said.

State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters June 6 that “ U.S. participation in security guarantees” is “not on the table.”

The United States has offered to discuss Iraqi security issues with Iran, but the two countries have still not agreed to such talks. (See ACT, April 2006.)

New U.S. Policy?

The European countries involved in the talks had been pressuring the United States to talk directly with Iran, arguing that U.S. participation in the talks would be a powerful incentive for Iran to negotiate, the State Department official said.

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier told Der Spiegel June 21 that “ Washington’s participation substantially increases the value of the offer to negotiate, because specific American elements can now be incorporated.”

But whether the Bush administration is willing to negotiate a solution to the nuclear issue with the current Iranian regime remains unclear.

Iranian officials have continued to express doubt about the Bush administration’s sincerity. Larijani said June 25 that Washington is still intent on “overthrowing Iran’s government,” citing the administration’s recent efforts to increase support for democracy promotion in Iran, IRNA reported.

Indeed, the Bush administration continues to support leadership change in Tehran and has continued to criticize Iran’s behavior on non-nuclear issues, such as its support for terrorist organizations and its poor human rights record.

Nevertheless, the administration “recognizes that this is the regime we have to work with,” the State Department official said. Although some officials previously advocated regime change in Tehran, that is no longer the case, the official said.

The official acknowledged, however, that some U.S. officials view support for the negotiations as a mere “tactical” move designed to garner Russian and Chinese support for punitive Security Council actions.

The United States has still not said whether Tehran’s compliance with the council’s requests would satisfy Washington’s concerns about the country’s nuclear program. Rice stated May 31, however, that the United States would “actively support” any Iranian benefits that are part of a final agreement. None of the other countries involved in the discussions support overthrowing the Iranian government.

Although Rice has said repeatedly that the United States is not considering a “grand bargain” with Tehran that would address Washington’s other concerns, Bush’s national security adviser Stephen Hadley suggested June 22 that Washington might be open to future discussions on such matters. Tehran’s acceptance of the terms for negotiation “would be a good starting point,” he said.