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March 7, 2018
Iran, EU Struggle to Start Nuclear Talks

Paul Kerr

As September drew to a close, European and Iranian negotiators were attempting to reach an agreement regarding ground rules for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The permanent five members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany and Italy, agreed Sept. 19 to give Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, until early October to reach an agreement with his Iranian interlocutors.

Solana met several times during September with Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, but was unable to strike an accord over which would come first, the beginning of the negotiations or the suspension of Tehran’s gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program.

Iran faces possible UN Security Council sanctions because of its failure to comply with an Aug. 31 council deadline requiring it to suspend its enrichment program. Uranium enrichment can produce low-enriched uranium, used for fuel in civil nuclear reactors, as well as highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

A package of incentives and disincentives offered to Iran in June by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States requires Iran to enact such a suspension before negotiations can begin. Tehran has indicted that it is willing to consider suspending the program but continues to resist doing so before beginning negotiations.

A European diplomat told Arms Control Today Sept. 25 that both the United States and Iran will have to be flexible regarding the timing of a suspension announcement, adding that “some sort of face-saving” measure would be necessary. Although U.S. and European officials would not speak publicly of a specific deadline, the diplomat confirmed press reports that the relevant countries had agreed that Iran had to respond satisfactorily by early October. These countries now include Italy, which was not a party to the initial offer, but has since taken a more prominent role.

Security Council members have been discussing a resolution that could implement sanctions, but they apparently have not yet reached consensus on the matter.

Resolution 1696, which the Security Council adopted in July, requires Iran to suspend its enrichment program, and calls on it to undertake other measures, such as fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) investigation of its nuclear programs, in order to build confidence that its nuclear program is intended exclusively for peaceful purposes. According to the resolution, the council intends to adopt “appropriate measures” short of military force if Iran refuses to comply. No such measures will be adopted if Iran cooperates. (See ACT, September 2006.)

But an Aug. 31 report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei requested by the Security Council resolution indicates that Iran has neither suspended its enrichment work nor provided the agency with significant cooperation on outstanding issues of concern.

Elements of a Deal?

Tehran’s lack of compliance was foreshadowed by its Aug. 22 response to the June proposal. Iran’s 21-page response, a copy of which was made public in September, describes the proposal as containing “useful foundations” for “long-term cooperation” but does not explicitly accept the conditions for beginning negotiations.

Iran further said in the response that it wants clarification of what it describes as “ambiguities” regarding some of the package’s provisions. For example, Tehran wants its interlocutors to clarify the scope of any potential nuclear cooperation agreements, as well as provide “irreversible and irrevocable guarantees” that any such agreements will be carried out.

The June package contains several proposals for providing Iran with nuclear energy, including part ownership of a Russian enrichment facility, a five-year “buffer stock” of enriched uranium stored under IAEA supervision, and multilateral ventures to provide a light-water nuclear power reactor. Additionally, the proposal includes measures for economic cooperation with and technology transfers to Iran.

In Iran’s response, however, it says it cannot rely on international fuel-supply assurances and still plans to enrich uranium on its own territory. Tehran did reiterate, however, that it is willing to do so “through consortium with other countries.” Although the June package was designed to persuade Tehran to end its enrichment program, it does allow for a final agreement to include a provision that would permit Iran to have an enrichment facility on its own territory at some point in the future.

Iran’s response also suggests a willingness to meet some of the demands described in both the Security Council resolution and the June proposal.

The six countries have insisted that, before beginning negotiations, Iran, in addition to suspending its enrichment program, would have to “commit to addressing all the outstanding concerns of the IAEA” and resume implementing its additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement.

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 (NPT). Iran has signed but not ratified its additional protocol. Tehran had been implementing the agreement but stopped doing so in February after the IAEA board referred its nuclear file to the Security Council.

In its response, Tehran says it will “facilitate the necessary working conditions” to resolve the IAEA’s outstanding questions regarding its nuclear program. Iran also expresses a willingness to implement its additional protocol “voluntarily.” However, it attaches several conditions to that offer and does not say that it will ratify the protocol—another Security Council demand.

As for suspending its enrichment activities, Tehran’s reply states that it is “ready to discuss” suspending its enrichment activities during “the course of negotiations.”

The country is also apparently open to considering other methods to reassure the international community that its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. The response suggests that Iran may take actions that go beyond its safeguards requirements, although it provides little detail. It also says that Tehran is willing to “guarantee in an appropriate manner” that it will not withdraw from the IAEA or NPT.

The response, however, says that this offer is contingent on the other parties’ participation in “simultaneous mutual confidence-building” measures on security matters. These measures include a commitment to persuade Israel to sign the NPT and to support the pursuit of a regional nuclear-weapon-free zone. Iran also wants the six countries to prevent “all hostile and restrictive acts,” including economic sanctions and “any kind of military action or threat” against Iran. The June package vaguely addressed security issues, saying that the parties would “support a new conference to promote dialogue and cooperation on regional security issues.”

Reflecting a long-standing Iranian concern, the reply repeatedly states that Iran does not want Security Council involvement in resolving the nuclear issue. It also indicates that Tehran will end its cooperation and “choose a different course of action” if “parties with adventurous inclinations” pursue action against Iran through the Security Council.

Iran also articulated other demands such as lifting economic and trade sanctions. Furthermore, Tehran wants a “limitation” on the negotiations’ duration. The country has previously complained that its previous talks with the Europeans dragged on without producing satisfactory results. Iran had suspended its enrichment program in late 2004 before beginning negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Those talks ended when Iran took several steps to renew enrichment-related activities beginning in August 2005 after terming the European offer inadequate. (See ACT, September 2005.)

Diplomatic Discussions

There have been indications that the two sides could reach a compromise that would allow negotiations to begin. Other potential participants may be willing to accept a compromise under which Tehran would agree to suspend its programs at the beginning of negotiations rather than as a precondition.

French President Jacques Chirac, for example, discussed a possible compromise in an interview with USA Today published Sept. 19. He indicated that Paris could support an agreement where the United States would join negotiations with Iran after Tehran announced a suspension. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley further indicated during a Sept. 18 press briefing that the United States could agree to such an arrangement. Chirac also said that the two sides could reach an agreement regarding the talks’ duration prior to the negotiations.

Perhaps significantly, Iranian and U.S. officials have suggested that negotiations, should they begin, could include issues other than Tehran’s nuclear program. Asked during a Sept. 15 Washington event whether the United States would consider discussing such concerns as security guarantees and bilateral relations, Department of State Counselor Philip Zelikow replied that “all those kinds of issues could be discussed” if Iran meets the conditions for beginning the negotiations.

For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an interview with The Washington Post published Sept. 24 that “it is possible to talk about everything.”

Whither Sanctions?

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph told reporters Sept. 6 that Iran is moving ahead “very aggressively” with its enrichment program, adding that “it is now essential that we move to adopt sanctions.”

However, Security Council members, including key members China and Russia, have continued to balk at taking punitive measures against Tehran.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Vremya Novosti Sept. 11 that “sanctions are possible” but cautioned that such measures will only serve to drive Iran and the Security Council “into a corner.” Similarly, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Sept. 5 that sanctions could “prove counterproductive,” Reuters reported.

Chirac also displayed a lack of enthusiasm for sanctions during a Sept. 18 radio interview, stating that although the Security Council may need to impose such measures, he did not believe them to be “very effective.”

Rice told reporters Sept. 11 that the UN may adopt several resolutions that would impose increasingly severe sanctions on Iran. However, the council does not appear to have agreed on specific measures.

U.S. officials have publicly discussed a variety of potential sanctions that would likely target Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs initially, as well as individuals involved in those programs. Such measures could include efforts to impede Iran’s ability to acquire relevant materials and spend revenues derived from oil sales.

Additionally, the Bush administration is continuing its unilateral efforts to persuade other governments and private institutions to refrain from doing business with Tehran. The Department of the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Stuart Levey, stated during a Sept. 8 speech in Washington that some European financial institutions have already curtailed their dealings with Iran because of the government’s position on its nuclear program.

Levey and other senior Treasury Department officials also traveled to other countries to further such efforts. U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton told reporters Sept. 18 that U.S. officials are talking with “governments and financial institutions about the risks of transactions with front companies set up by the government of Iran to help finance” the country’s nuclear and missile programs.

The European diplomat said that Washington would likely continue to push such measures even if negotiations were to begin. But a Department of State official told Arms Control Today Sept. 25 that the United States may reconsider such actions “if Iran is negotiating in good faith.”