Iran Responds to Call for Talks

Peter Crail

Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili formally responded to a call for talks with six major powers Feb. 15, potentially paving the way for the first negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in more than a year.

That same day, Iran announced a series of new achievements related to its nuclear program, although former U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials said the advances were not as significant as Iran portrayed them to be. A Feb. 24 IAEA report appeared to contradict some of Iran’s claims, but did demonstrate that Iran had accomplished a significant expansion of its uranium-enrichment capacity.

Jalili’s response was delivered in a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, who represents the so-called P5+1 group (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Ashton sent a letter to Jalili last Oct. 21 calling for “meaningful discussions on concrete confidence-building steps” to address international concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Although senior Iranian officials have expressed Tehran’s readiness for new talks for several weeks, Jalili’s letter was the first formal indication that Iran was willing to hold talks on the nuclear issue.

P5+1 diplomats said in interviews in January that although Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Ashton on the sidelines of a conference in Bonn Dec. 5 that Iran wished to hold talks, the six countries still needed a formal response from Tehran. The diplomats said it was important for Iran to demonstrate that it was willing to discuss the nuclear issue seriously in order to avoid a repeat of the last meeting between the two sides in January 2011.

At that meeting, Iran insisted that talks could proceed only if the P5+1 explicitly recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium and lifted the sanctions that have been imposed on Tehran. (See ACT, January/February 2011.)

Officials from P5+1 countries suggested that Jalili’s letter might be enough to allow talks to proceed but that the six countries first had to examine the letter and discuss it with one another.

“This response from the Iranian government is one we’ve been waiting for, and if we do proceed, it will have to be a sustained effort that can produce results,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington Feb. 17.

A U.S. official said in a Feb. 27 interview that the United States is “ready to move forward with talks later this spring” and is currently consulting with the other P5+1 members. The official explained that Washington hopes to hold “more than just one meeting,” but added that “it will be Iran’s actions at the negotiating table that ultimately determine whether any negotiation can be a sustained effort—which we seek.”

Ashton’s and Jalili’s letters suggested an interest in engaging in a gradual process addressing the nuclear issue. Ashton said that the “initial objective” of the P5+1 “is to engage in a confidence-building exercise aimed at facilitating a constructive dialogue on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach.”

In his letter, a copy of which was obtained by Arms Control Today, Jalili appeared to envision a similar process. Citing the P5+1 recognition of Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy contained in Ashton’s letter, Jalili said that based on that understanding, “our talks for cooperation based on step-by-step principles and reciprocity on Iran’s nuclear issue could be commenced.”

The initial step to which Ashton appears to be referring in her letter is a proposal focused on Iran’s production of 20 percent-enriched uranium. Yahoo News reported Jan. 18 that the United States has drafted a proposal that would require Iran to halt 20 percent enrichment and ship out the roughly 100 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium it has produced. In return, the news report said, the P5+1 would agree not to seek additional sanctions on Iran.

Arms Control Today confirmed with a U.S. official in January that the proposal would also entail the provision of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which operates on 20 percent-enriched uranium fuel and produces medical isotopes for cancer patients. Similar proposals to fuel the Tehran reactor over the past three years have failed to obtain agreement from all of the parties involved. (See ACT, June 2010.)

Iran claims it is producing 20 percent-enriched uranium to fuel the reactor in Tehran and additional plants Iran intends to build in the future. However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Iran’s state-run Fars news agency Oct. 5 that Iran would “immediately” stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level if the country received fuel for the Tehran reactor, stating that the process is “not economical.”

Nuclear Advances Touted

Also on Feb. 15, Iran ceremoniously announced several advances in its nuclear program.

A key announcement was that Iran had begun loading fuel plates for the Tehran reactor. Ahmadinejad characterized the move as a very “big new achievement” in a ceremony unveiling the fuel, according to Fars.

Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London Feb. 16, IISS Nonproliferation and Disarmament Programme Director Mark Fitzpatrick said what Iran likely meant was that it has begun the process of testing the fuel, rather than fueling the plant for operations.

Fitzpatrick, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under President George W. Bush, added that the only danger stemming from Iran’s loading of the fuel plates into the reactor might be “to the people living around the reactor,” noting that Iran could create a safety hazard if it did not first test its fuel “extensively.”

Fitzpatrick’s assessment appeared to be confirmed in the Feb. 24 IAEA report, which stated that the fuel assemblies that Iran has created for the Tehran reactor were transferred to the facility for irradiation testing.

Iran also announced that it has begun using a “fourth generation” centrifuge at its commercial-scale enrichment plant at Natanz. Iranian state television reported that the centrifuges are “speedier, produce less waste, and occupy less space” than Iran’s current model.

The recent IAEA report said Iran told the agency Feb. 1 that it intended to install three new types of centrifuges called the IR-5, IR-6, and IR-6S. It was not clear what “generation” these models were. In 2010, Iran unveiled what it called a “third generation” centrifuge model, but it had not begun testing any new designs until now.

Iran currently uses an unreliable centrifuge model, called the IR-1, it acquired in the 1980s from the nuclear trafficking network led by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. For more than a decade, Iran has sought to develop a second-generation machine based on a more advanced model provided by the Khan network, but has encountered numerous delays in developing those centrifuges.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Director Fereydoon Abbasi said during a Feb. 15 press briefing that the new centrifuges “increase Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium by three times” compared to the IR-1 model, a capability believed to be on par with Iran’s second-generation machines.

A final announcement Iran made Feb. 15 was the expansion of its commercial-scale Natanz enrichment plant by 3,000 centrifuges.

“Approximately 6,000 centrifuges were working [at Natanz, and] 3,000 have been added to that amount,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech celebrating Iran’s nuclear-related accomplishments.

The Feb. 24 IAEA report said that Iran had about 8,800 centrifuges operating at the plant, up from about 6,200 operating centrifuges noted in a Nov. 8 IAEA report. This increase provides Iran with the largest number of operating machines that it has ever had. Iran also increased the total number of centrifuges installed at Natanz by about 1,100 since November, for a total of about 9,100 machines.

Additional Sanctions

Iran’s nuclear developments come as more countries are looking to tighten restrictions on importing Iranian oil, following the U.S. adoption of sanctions against Iran’s central bank. (See ACT, January/February 2012.)

The 27-nation European Union decided Jan. 23 to impose an oil embargo on Iran, agreeing not to conclude any further oil contracts and ending all existing contracts in July. The bloc has been considering such a move over the past few months, but met strong reservations from Greece, which relies on Iran for roughly 14 percent of its oil and faces severe fiscal challenges.

Japan and South Korea also have announced that they will be limiting their imports of Iranian oil, although diplomats from the two U.S. allies say that the process will be challenging because they will have to find alternative suppliers.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, has said that it could increase output to make up for much of the shortage faced by embargoing countries.

In another Feb. 15 development, Iran’s Foreign Ministry directly threated to cut off oil exports to France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.

Diplomats from two of the countries said in interviews that along with the threat to cut off oil exports, Iranian officials described conditions under which Tehran would continue supplying oil to each country, such as an agreement on long-term contracts. The diplomats said their governments would reject those conditions.

IAEA Rebuffed

Meanwhile, the IAEA said in a Feb. 22 press statement that Iran had denied a request by IAEA inspectors to visit a site called Parchin, which the agency suspects may have been involved in nuclear warhead development.

The statement quoted IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano as saying, “It is disappointing that Iran did not accept our request to visit Parchin during the first or second meetings,” referring to the IAEA team’s most recent high-level visit and one carried out Jan. 29-31.

The agency’s Nov. 8 report said that a building at the Parchin military complex may have housed a containment vessel used to carry out high-explosives experiments that are “strong indicators of possible weapon development.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Feb. 22 that Iran’s rejection of an IAEA request for a visit to Parchin “suggest[s] that they have not changed their behavior when it comes to abiding by their international obligations.”