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New Iran Talks Set, but Prospects Gloomy
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Paul Kerr

Prospects for a successful resolution to Iran’s nuclear crisis appear increasingly bleak despite a recent flurry of diplomatic activity.

Iranian officials met Dec. 21 in Vienna with their counterparts from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in an attempt to restart negotiations aimed at resolving concerns over Iran’s nuclear activities, particularly its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program.

French Foreign Ministry political director Stanislas de Laboulaye indicated that the two sides are still far apart, Agence France Presse reported Dec. 22. But the two sides reportedly have agreed to meet again Jan. 18 to prepare for future negotiations.

Meanwhile, Iran and Russia agreed to meet Jan. 7 to discuss a related Russian compromise proposal that purportedly would allow Iran access to Russian uranium-enrichment services. But Tehran has publicly demonstrated only weak support for the idea.

All parties have indicated that their patience is wearing thin. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told Der Spiegel Dec. 20 that Tehran needs to demonstrate that it is willing to return to negotiations “over the next several weeks or months.” Similarly, a French Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated Dec. 29 that “[t]ime is short now.”

Sounding an even more pessimistic note, a Western diplomat told Arms Control Today that the Russian proposal is the “last serious offer on the table,” adding that the Europeans “have run out of options there.”

Adding his two cents, Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, asserted during a Dec. 5 press conference that there is a “time limit” for solving the nuclear issue.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s multiple anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements in recent months also have complicated the situation. His comments have received widespread condemnation in the United States and throughout Europe. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier argued that such behavior is jeopardizing the chances for the success of the negotiations, the Associated Press reported Dec. 14.

Security Council Referral Looms

The United States and the Europeans are seeking to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. The European governments, as well as the United States, believe Russia will support such a move if Moscow’s diplomatic efforts fail. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Under the IAEA statute, the board is required to notify the Security Council if a member state is found in noncompliance with its agency safeguards agreement. Such agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military purposes. The Security Council may then take action against the offending state. Moscow’s support is considered to be crucial because, as one of five permanent members of the Security Council, it can veto a council resolution.

In September, the board found Iran in violation of its safeguards agreement after an IAEA investigation discovered that Tehran conducted several clandestine nuclear activities. But the board did not specify when or under what circumstances it would refer the matter to the Security Council. (See ACT, December 2005.)

Moscow’s position on a referral is unclear. President Vladimir Putin told reporters Dec. 6 that the IAEA route was “far from having been exhausted.” Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov said during a Dec. 26 interview that Russia still wants Iran to cooperate with the IAEA to dispel doubts about Tehran’s peaceful intentions.

But a Russian embassy official told Arms Control Today Dec. 22 that at least some Russian officials will reconsider their position on a referral if Tehran turns down Moscow’s proposal.

One likely explanation for Russia’s position is that Moscow’s view of the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programs differs from Washington’s. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but Moscow has no proof that Iran is “violating the nonproliferation regime,” Lavrov said.

Russia also is constructing a civilian light-water nuclear reactor near the Iranian city of Bushehr.

Herding Cats

Iran and Europe

The recent European-Iranian talks marked the first time the two sides have met in several months. They had been meeting regularly since November 2004 in an attempt to devise mutually acceptable “objective guarantees” that Iran’s nuclear facilities would be used solely for peaceful purposes. But the talks broke down in August when Iran restarted its uranium-conversion facility. Iran had agreed to suspend several enrichment-related activities, including uranium conversion, for the duration of the negotiations. (See ACT, September 2005.)

Uranium-conversion facilities produce uranium hexafluoride gas from lightly processed uranium ore. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning this gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. Uranium enrichment can produce both low-enriched uranium, which is used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, or highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The NPT permits Iran to operate uranium-enrichment facilities under IAEA safeguards. But the United States and Iran’s European interlocutors are concerned that Iranian expertise gained from operating enrichment facilities could help it develop a nuclear weapons program.

The Europeans want Iran to forswear its indigenous uranium-enrichment facilities. In return, Iran would receive economic, technical, and security incentives, as well as an assured supply of nuclear fuel. The Europeans presented a proposal in August 2005 that described such incentives. But Tehran has repeatedly insisted that it wishes to enrich uranium, and there is no indication that it has seriously considered the proposal.

Iran also is continuing to push the envelope regarding the scope of its suspension. For example, Iran has shown no indication that it will suspend uranium conversion despite the Europeans’ repeated statements that negotiations will not resume unless Iran does so.

Moreover, Larijani upped the ante Dec. 5 by suggesting that Tehran may resume research and development on centrifuges, another activity that the November 2004 agreement required Iran to suspend. Larijani argued that the suspension should only cover Iran’s partly constructed centrifuge facility.

The three European countries responded with sharply worded statements indicating that negotiations might not resume if Iran restarts its centrifuge activities. Apparently undeterred, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi repeated Larijani’s argument Dec. 25.

Iran and Russia

In an attempt at compromise, Moscow has proposed giving Tehran part-ownership of a centrifuge plant located in Russia that would enrich Iranian-produced uranium hexafluoride. But two Russian embassy officials told Arms Control Today in December that several aspects of the plan have yet to be decided, such as the proper method for transporting the nuclear material and the specific enrichment plant to be used. Iran has sent somewhat conflicting messages regarding the plan. On one hand, de Laboulaye told Agence France Presse Dec. 21 that, during the Vienna talks, the Europeans had mentioned the “Russian initiative,” and Iran did not reject it.

However, Iranian officials have said repeatedly that Iran wants to conduct enrichment in its own country. Larijani said Dec. 5 that Iran might participate in foreign enrichment projects but only to supplement its indigenous program. Javad Veidi, the head of Tehran’s negotiating team, told Iran’s Fars News Agency Dec. 30 that the government would study the Russian proposal “on the assumption that Iran’s rights for uranium enrichment on its soil is guaranteed.”

Veidi also indicated two days earlier that Tehran views Russia’s proposal as a potential way of improving Iran’s own centrifuge program, the Islamic Students News Agency reported.

However, a Russian embassy official told Arms Control Today Dec. 20 that were its proposal accepted, Iran would not be granted access to centrifuge technology, even if Iranian officials are allowed to visit the facility.

For its part, Iran has proposed allowing foreign companies and governments to invest in Iranian enrichment facilities. Such arrangements, first suggested by Ahmadinejad during his September speech to the UN General Assembly, would provide “maximum transparency” for Iran’s nuclear programs, Larijani told reporters.

Another U.S. Track?

The Bush administration has continued to push for a Security Council referral, as well as other means of pressuring Tehran.

During a Dec. 9 speech, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph reiterated that a Security Council referral will “reinforce” the IAEA’s efforts by augmenting its authority to “investigate all Iranian weaponization efforts.” The administration also has said that the Security Council could impose more punitive measures such as economic sanctions.

Last spring, the United States made some minor policy changes in order to aid the Europeans’ offer to support Iran’s application to the World Trade Organization and supply spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft. (See ACT, April 2005.)

In response to Iran’s increasingly hostile behavior, the Bush administration is augmenting its censure of Iran’s nuclear program by stepping up criticism of Tehran’s anti-democratic policies and its support for terrorist organizations. Moreover, Washington also appears to be encouraging other countries to take it upon themselves to pressure Iran to change the same objectionable behavior.

During a Nov. 30 speech in Washington, Burns recommended isolating Iran. He argued that the international community has leverage “[t]hrough its diplomatic contacts and its trade and its investment” that “could be used constructively now to convince the hard-liners in Tehran that there is a price for their misguided policies.” He also indicated Dec. 20 that the United States and other countries could take such actions without a UN mandate.

Washington has for now ruled out giving Iran additional incentives to give up its enrichment program, such as U.S. security assurances. Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli said Dec. 12 that the United States would only consider providing such assurances to Iran if Tehran cooperates with the IAEA.


Posted: January 1, 2006