On June 14, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany formally presented Iran with a revised proposal for comprehensive negotiations aimed at resolving concerns over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The incentives package builds on an offer made by the six-country group in 2006 and includes a potential face-saving understanding that would allow talks to begin with Iran if it agreed to halt its controversial uranium-enrichment activities shortly thereafter. Overall, however, the proposal maintains the original offer’s basic framework of providing political and economic benefits to Iran in return for shutting down the country’s sensitive nuclear activities.
The six-country offer follows a vague Iranian proposal for a negotiated settlement delivered to the group in May. (See ACT, June 2008. )
Meanwhile, Iran has continued to rebuff international demands to halt its uranium-enrichment-related activities and the construction of its heavy-water reactor, missing a June 3 deadline established by Security Council Resolution 1803 to do so. (See ACT, April 2008. ) Not only has Iran proceeded with both activities, but, according to a May 26 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran’s proficiency in running its uranium-enrichment program has increased substantially since last year.
A uranium-enrichment program can be used to enrich uranium to low levels for use in nuclear power reactors or high levels for use in nuclear weapons. A heavy-water reactor can produce plutonium, which also can be used for peaceful or military purposes.
Minor Changes but More Fanfare
The six countries—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—agreed in January to revise the 2006 offer as part of a compromise between the Western countries and China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow insisted on such a repackaging in return for their support for Resolution 1803, adopted in March. Resolution 1803 imposed a third round of sanctions on Iran. (See ACT, April 2008. )
The repackaging effort was primarily aimed at clarifying some of the provisions in the 2006 offer and demonstrating to the Iranian general public the benefits Iran would receive if Tehran complied with international demands. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters May 22 that the modified offer “will make clear that there are substantial benefits for the Iranian people” if Iran complies with its international obligations. Likewise, officials from some of the six countries explained to Arms Control Today in March that the revised proposal was geared toward selling the proposed incentives to the Iranian populace rather than providing further concessions to entice the regime in Tehran. (See ACT, April 2008. )
As part of this effort to raise the profile of the incentives package to the Iranian public, the political directors of the six-country group, with the exception of the United States, joined EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana to present the offer to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki June 14. U.S. officials have indicated that Washington would not send a representative to Tehran unless Iran complied with its Security Council obligations. (See ACT, June 2008. )
Solana and representatives of the five countries included with the offer a letter signed by the foreign ministers of the six countries, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. European diplomats told Arms Control Today in June that there were difficulties in getting approval from the United States for Rice to sign the letter, as Washington was still uncomfortable with some of the terms included in the offer.
In their presentation of the negotiations proposal to Iran, Solana and the accompanying political directors sought to clarify how such negotiations would proceed, including an initial six-week period in which Iran committed not to expand its enrichment program while the six countries agreed not to pursue additional Security Council sanctions. Under this “freeze-for-freeze” process, Iran would only be required to suspend new enrichment activities right away while the parties discussed the logistical details of who would carry out the negotiations, what their schedule would be, and other parameters.
A British diplomat told Arms Control Today June 18 that although the time frame for this freeze is subject to some discussion, a clear time limit would need to be established in order for Iran to implement its suspension and to allow actual negotiations to proceed. The letter accompanying the proposal stated that “formal negotiations can start as soon as Iran’s enrichment-related and reprocessing activities are suspended.”
A number of experts, including IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, have promoted the prospect of such a freeze-for-freeze agreement since the Security Council first began to impose sanctions on Iran in December 2006. ElBaradei told reporters June 14, 2007, that because there was no need for Iran to expand its enrichment capacity, “it would be a good confidence-building measure if Iran has a self-imposed moratorium…on the number of centrifuges being built.”
European diplomats told Arms Control Today in June that there was always an implicit understanding that such preliminary negotiations would have to take place but that this was the first time that such terms were explicitly relayed to Iran. The diplomats also noted that the freeze-for-freeze proposal offered a face-saving way for Iran to accept the terms of the negotiations.
The repackaged letter outlined several areas of potential cooperation between some or all of the six countries and Iran, including in the fields of nuclear energy, regional security, civil aviation, economic infrastructure development, and humanitarian issues. Although many of the proposed avenues for cooperation were identical with the 2006 offer, the June package included a number of new provisions.
One potentially key new provision was a “reaffirmation of the obligations under the UN Charter to refrain...from the threat or use of force.” Although this language echoes an obligation that all UN members have agreed to follow, it is also suggestive of a security guarantee to Iran. A German diplomat told Arms Control Today June 19 that the language was a compromise largely between the United States, which felt that it could not offer a formal security guarantee to Iran, and Russia and China, which argued that such a guarantee would provide a major incentive for Iran to comply with international demands and negotiate over its nuclear program.
Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters May 14 that the six countries should “give Iran security guarantees” as part of its revised proposal. Washington rejected such a proposition the same day, with White House Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe stating, “Security guarantees are not something we are looking at [at] the moment.”
The proposal also goes into more detail regarding some of the political and economic benefits Iran would receive. Such details include the development of Iran’s transportation infrastructure, improvements in Iran’s agricultural sector through “cooperation in modern technology,” and support for educational opportunities for Iranians in the areas of civil engineering, agriculture, and environmental science.
Iran provided mixed reactions to the six-country proposal. Iranian officials initially reiterated Tehran’s refusal to consider a proposal that requires Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities. Iranian government spokesperson Gholam Hossein Elham told a June 14 press conference that “if the package includes suspension, it is not debatable at all.”
Other officials appeared more receptive and indicated that Tehran was studying the offer. Mottaki explained to reporters June 19 that the package “is currently under consideration and, at the appropriate time, Tehran will give its reactions.”
Iran Moving Up Its Enrichment Learning Curve
In defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, Iran continues to expand the number of centrifuges at its commercial-scale enrichment plant at Natanz and improve its capability to operate them.
According to a May 26 IAEA report, Iran is currently operating a module of 3,000 centrifuges that are based on Pakistan’s P-1 centrifuge design. In addition, Iran has begun running an additional 328 centrifuges and has installed another 164 at a second module, which will also house a total of 3,000 machines.
Previous IAEA reports indicated that Iran was operating the centrifuges installed in its first module “well below [their] declared design capacity.” (See ACT, March 2008. ) Between February and December 2007, Iran fed about 1,670 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into its centrifuges. Uranium hexafluoride is the feedstock used in gas centrifuges to produce enriched uranium.
In the five-month period between December 2007 and May 2008, however, Iran exceeded the amount fed during the previous 11-month period by feeding about 2,300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into its operating centrifuges. Although this increase only represents about one-half the stated design capacity of the P-1 centrifuges, it represents an increase from far lower capacity levels exhibited throughout 2007. Part of this difference is also due to the fact that Iran was installing its first set of 3,000 centrifuges between February and November 2007 and was therefore operating fewer centrifuges throughout the year.
The report also indicates that Iran installed a third generation of centrifuge, called the IR-3, at its pilot-scale enrichment facility in April. Like the IR-2 centrifuge design Iran began installing at the pilot plant in January, the IR-3 is based on the P-2 centrifuge design Iran acquired from Pakistan. The P-2 centrifuge can enrich uranium about 150 percent faster than the P-1. (See ACT, November 2007. )