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"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 #NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Iran Nuclear Diplomacy: Still the Best Option
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Daryl G. Kimball

After a long delay, serious negotiations to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its growing capacity to enrich uranium appear to be back on track. Although no breakthrough was achieved, the April 14 round of talks with Iran in Istanbul established a good foundation for progress.

At the close of the talks, which involved senior officials from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—the so-called P5+1—EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the two sides will hold expert-level talks and then will meet at the senior political level in Baghdad on May 23. Future political and technical talks, she said, will be guided by the “principle of a step-by-step approach and reciprocity.”

Now the task is to reach agreement on specific, concrete proposals that can help prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, beginning with the most urgent proliferation problems. The top priority must be to halt Iran’s accumulation of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which is above normal reactor grade and closer to weapons grade, in exchange for fuel assemblies for its Tehran Research Reactor, which Iran uses to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment.

Further uranium enrichment at this level has the potential for significantly shortening the time Tehran would require to build nuclear weapons if it decided to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A deal to halt enrichment above normal fuel grade would provide negotiators with more time and space to address other key issues.

If Iran received a fuel reload for the Tehran reactor, its needs for medical isotope production would be met for the next decade. Such an arrangement would also establish a principle that Iran would not enrich beyond normal power-reactor grade of about 4 percent as a first step toward restricting Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful uses. The principle that Iran would enrich only according to its power reactor fuel needs could serve as a basis for a deal to limit the size and scope of its enrichment program as a whole.

In the next phase of talks, Washington and its allies also must press Iran to improve cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by fully implementing its safeguards agreement, intended to verify that its program is peaceful. In addition, Tehran finally must answer long-standing questions about suspected nuclear weapons-related research prior to 2004.

Further transparency measures would reduce the risk of clandestine nuclear work outside of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities, which include its uranium-enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, as well as a heavy-water reactor now being built near Arak that could be used to produce plutonium for bombs. In recent weeks, the agency and Iran have been haggling over the IAEA’s proposed work plan to address these issues, with Iran seeking limits on the IAEA’s access.

It is past time for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his team to provide the transparency necessary to ensure that his fatwa “forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons” is genuine.

If these and other confidence-building steps are taken, the P5+1 could offer to delay the imposition of a European oil embargo, which is due to be fully in place by July 1.

Iran’s approach to the recent talks, which was more serious than at the previous talks 15 months ago, is a result of the international sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran, which are now at an all-time high. As a result, both sides appear to be better prepared to discuss pragmatic proposals to resolve the crisis.

The new momentum for diplomacy should quell loose talk about the “military option,” which would be ineffective and counterproductive. Air strikes on Iranian facilities would set back Iran’s program for no more than a couple of years, convince its leaders to pursue nuclear weapons openly, and lead to adverse economic and security consequences.

Nevertheless, some cynics and critics of the diplomatic option already are complaining that further negotiations only allow Iran to “buy time” for its nuclear pursuits. Such thinking is illogical and dangerous.

Iran’s position is not any better than it was before the talks. International and national sanctions will remain in place until Tehran takes the steps necessary to give other countries confidence it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. If Washington and its P5+1 partners do not seize the potential diplomatic opportunities, the international support necessary to maintain pressure on Iran will erode, and Iran no longer will be seen as the roadblock to a peaceful resolution.

Resolving the nuclear issue will require sufficient pressure and inducements to convince Iran’s current and future leaders they stand to gain more from forgoing nuclear weapons than from any decision to build them. Much more needs to be done, but serious, sustained diplomacy remains the best option on the table. ACT