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June 1, 2018
‘More Active’ Talks Needed, Rouhani Says

Kelsey Davenport

Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, said he hopes for “more active negotiations” with six world powers over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program after he takes office on Aug. 3.

In a June 17 press briefing, Rouhani said that the nuclear issue can “only be resolved through negotiations” and that the parties can find “mutual trust” to reach a solution. Rouhani was elected June 14.

In a June 24 interview, a former Iranian official said Rouhani will be better placed than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to make a deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. Iran’s economy is under considerable pressure from sanctions primarily imposed by the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States for failing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend sensitive nuclear activities. The former official said Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei still will have the final say but that Khamenei is more likely to trust Rouhani than Ahmadinejad and give him latitude to negotiate.

In a June 15 press release acknowledging Rouhani’s victory, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the United States is ready to “engage the Iranian government directly” to reach a diplomatic agreement that will “fully address” international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

Rouhani served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005 and is widely considered supportive of the clerical regime, even though he was cast as the most moderate of the six contenders on the presidential ballot.

Iran is negotiating with six countries—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—over the nuclear program, which it claims is entirely peaceful. The six powers, or P5+1, are concerned that Iran is progressing toward a capability that would allow the country to develop nuclear weapons rapidly if it chose to do so.

Iran and the P5+1 held two rounds of talks in February and April, but have been unable to reach an agreement. No further talks have been scheduled, although officials from several P5+1 countries expressed support for resuming talks in August after Rouhani takes office.

According to U.S. and Iranian sources familiar with the negotiations, Iran wants the P5+1 to recognize its right to pursue uranium enrichment and to provide sanctions relief. A principal P5+1 concern is halting Iran’s production of 20 percent-enriched uranium and limiting the size of its stockpile of that material. (See ACT, May 2013.)

Uranium enriched to 20 percent is more easily converted to weapons grade than reactor-grade uranium, which is enriched to less than 5 percent.

Rouhani will not give up uranium enrichment, but as long as the United States “does not expect too much” and is willing to put meaningful sanctions relief on the table, a deal could be made that limits enrichment to reactor grade and increases transparency, the former official said. Such a deal would allow Rouhani and Khamenei to “claim a victory” in the negotiations while meeting the most pressing concerns of the West, said the former official, who now lives in the United States.

At his June 17 press conference, Rouhani pledged greater openness. Although he maintained that Iran’s nuclear plans are “fully transparent,” he said that Tehran is “ready to show more transparency” to make clear to the world that its nuclear program is in line with international standards.

Iran-IAEA Talks Stalled

Two weeks before Rouhani’s press conference, Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the organization’s Board of Governors at its quarterly meeting that talks with Iran are “going around in circles.”

Iran and the IAEA are negotiating an approach for the agency’s investigations into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities. The two sides have met 10 times since January 2012 in an attempt to reach agreement on the scope and sequence of the investigations.

The IAEA first laid out its suspicions about Iranian nuclear efforts allegedly relating to weapons development in a November 2011 report to its board. (See ACT, December 2011.)

In the U.S. statement to the board at the June meeting, Joseph Macmanus, U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA, said Amano’s assessment that talks between the agency and Iran are not making progress was convincing. If there is no progress before the next board meeting, which is in September, the United States will work with other board members “to consider further action” against Iran, he said.

Macmanus did not specify what actions the United States would pursue, but the board could request that the UN Security Council take further action to censure Iran or impose additional sanctions.

The United States has made similar statements in the past. At the board meeting last November, the United States said it would urge action at the next meeting, in March, if no progress was reported on the Iran-IAEA negotiations. Despite Amano’s statement to the board during the March meeting that Iran and the IAEA had not made any progress, no action was taken. (See ACT, April 2013.)

IAEA Report

The IAEA’s most recent report to the board, dated May 22, found that Iran is continuing to move forward with its nuclear program, while failing to provide information on the possible military dimensions.

According to that report, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent was 182 kilograms. Experts estimate that approximately 250 kilograms of uranium enriched to this level, when further enriched to weapons grade, is enough for one bomb.

Iran has an additional 113 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent that has been converted into powder, which Tehran claims it will use for fuel to produce medical isotopes. The powder can be converted back into gas form for further enrichment, but experts say it is unclear how much material would be lost in the process.

Iran is continuing to install advanced centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment plant, although they are not yet producing enriched uranium. Iran had installed casings for nearly 700 machines, the May 22 report said.

According to a June 3 UN panel report on the implementation of Security Council sanctions on Iran, there is little public information on Tehran’s ability to indigenously produce components, including centrifuges, for its nuclear activities.

The panel, established in 2010 by Security Council Resolution 1929 to monitor compliance with UN sanctions and provide recommendations on implementation, noted that several states reported attempts by Iran in recent months to buy goods prohibited by UN sanctions because of their potential use in sensitive nuclear activities. These items included ring magnets and high-quality aluminum alloys, which can be used for centrifuges. The panel found that Iran continues “to seek items for prohibited activities from abroad” through “increasingly complex” methods of procurement.

The UN Security Council first voted to impose sanctions on Iran in December 2006 with Resolution 1737, after Tehran failed to comply with an earlier resolution to halt certain nuclear activities. Subsequent resolutions in 2007, 2008, and 2010 expanded these sanctions, primarily targeting Tehran’s ability to procure items that could be used in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.