Six world powers held talks with Iran over its nuclear program April 14 for the first time in 15 months and produced what both sides said were “positive” results.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had said during an April 1 interview with ABC News that the upcoming talks were “perhaps a last chance to demonstrate a way forward that can satisfy the international community’s concerns [about Iran’s nuclear program] and have Iran come forward and accept limitations on what they are able to do.”
Rather than resolve the long-running confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, last month’s meeting in Istanbul was intended to start a negotiating process that could result in confidence-building measures, diplomats familiar with the talks said in April. At the meeting, the so-called P5+1—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and Iran agreed to hold another session May 23 in Baghdad, preceded by a meeting of “deputies” to prepare for those talks.
Both sides favorably contrasted the recent meeting with the last talks held between the P5+1 and Iran, in Istanbul in January 2011, which failed to produce any agreement.
“There was much less posturing, no preconditions; [the Iranians] were prepared to talk about the nuclear issue,” Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction terrorism, said during an April 17 interview with Radio Free Europe.
Tehran insisted at the January 2011 talks that the P5+1 lift sanctions and recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium before Iran would agree to take any steps to address its nuclear program. (See ACT, March 2011.) The P5+1 rejected both preconditions.
Diplomats familiar with the talks also said in interviews in April that Tehran appeared to give its lead nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, greater room to negotiate at last month’s meeting by granting him the additional title of personal representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The diplomats noted that, during previous talks, Jalili generally repeated Iran’s public positions.
In Istanbul, Jalili held separate meetings with China, Russia, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the P5+1 and led its delegation to the talks. Iran did not meet with the United States even though it was invited to do so, but there was “no specific push” for direct talks, a U.S. official said April 26.
Sanctions Motivating Iran
U.S. officials have attributed Iran’s greater willingness to negotiate with the P5+1 to the increasing pressure from sanctions. In his April 17 interview, Samore rejected the notion that Iran could use the talks to play for time, pointing to U.S. sanctions on Iran’s central bank scheduled to go into effect in June and a July 1 EU deadline for European countries to halt all imports of Iranian oil. (See ACT, March 2012.)
“To the extent that the Iranian concern about sanctions is driving them to seek an agreement, the closer we get to the summer, the stronger our position becomes,” Samore said.
Although Iran did not repeat its previous precondition that the P5+1 lift sanctions before any agreements were concluded, Tehran was determined to seek sanctions relief. A European diplomat said April 16 that Jalili pressed to delay the July 1 EU oil embargo. The U.S. official said Iran’s effort to seek relief from sanctions “was a common theme” of the talks.
Although P5+1 officials welcomed the apparent shift in Iran’s approach to the talks, Iranian officials insisted that a change in the posture of the P5+1 was responsible for the results of last month’s meeting. “There was a new approach adopted by the other party at this meeting and this new approach contributed to the positive outcomes,” Iranian deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Baqeri told Iran’s official Press TV April 15. Baqeri said that Iran’s nuclear advances led the P5+1 “towards respecting the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Since the January 2011 meeting, Iran has expanded its controversial uranium-enrichment program, which Tehran says is for nuclear fuel but which could be used to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. As part of that effort, Iran has begun operations at a second uranium-enrichment plant built under a mountain near the city of Qom. (See ACT, April 2012.) France, the United Kingdom, and the United States accused Iran of building that plant, called Fordow, in secret in 2009. (See ACT, October 2009.) Fordow is much smaller than Iran’s commercial-scale uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, raising questions about its role in Iran’s nuclear program.
Nuclear Weapons a ‘Grave Sin’
Ahead of the talks, Iranian officials stressed Khamenei’s 2004 religious ruling against the possession of nuclear weapons, with Khamenei himself delivering a speech Feb. 22 declaring such weapons to be a “grave sin.” Khamenei added, “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons.”
In an additional attempt to drive this message home, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi published an op-ed in The Washington Post April 12 stating, “Our stance against weapons of mass destruction, which is far from new, has been put to the test.”
A November 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, however, describes several activities related to nuclear warhead development that the agency fears Iran may have pursued. Unclassified U.S. intelligence assessments have said that Iran had a nuclear weapons program prior to 2004 and that some weapons-related activities may have continued since then.
Ending Enrichment to 20 Percent
Responding to Iran’s professed opposition to nuclear weapons, Clinton told reporters in Istanbul April 1 that it was up to Iran to show its position is “not an abstract belief but it is a government policy.”
“That government policy can be demonstrated in a number of ways, by ending the enrichment of highly enriched uranium to 20 percent, by shipping out such highly enriched uranium out of the country, [and] by opening up to constant inspections and verifications,” Clinton said.
Arms Control Today confirmed in January that the United States was preparing a proposal for the talks under which Iran would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and ship out the 20 percent material it has produced in exchange for fuel for a medical reactor. That reactor, which the United States supplied in 1967, is nearly out of its 20 percent-enriched uranium fuel. Washington made a similar proposal to Iran to fuel the reactor in 2009, which Iran ultimately rejected. (See box.)
Uranium enriched to 20 percent can be converted to weapons grade much more quickly than can Iran’s stockpile of 4 percent-enriched uranium.
Iranian officials have issued contradictory statements over the past year on their willingness to press ahead with 20 percent enrichment. Last month, however, key Iranian officials signaled a more uniform willingness to negotiate the terms of a halt.
Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Director Fereydoun Abbasi, who has previously insisted that Iran would not give up 20 percent enrichment, told Press TV April 9 that Iran would enrich uranium to that level “based on our needs” and that “once the required fuel is obtained, we will decrease the production and we may even totally shift it to the 3.5 percent [enrichment level].”
Salehi repeated this formulation in an April 16 interview with the Iranian Students News Agency, stating, “Enrichment is Iran’s right but we can negotiate on how we obtain uranium with different enrichment levels.”
“Making 20 percent fuel is our right as long as it provides for our reactor needs and there is no question about that,” he said, adding, “If [the P5+1] guarantee that they will provide us with the different levels of enriched fuel that we need, then that would be another issue.”