After the Istanbul Meeting with Iran: Maintaining Persistent Diplomacy

Volume 2, Issue 1, February 3, 2011

Last month's multilateral talks in Istanbul on Iran's nuclear program ended inconclusively and without an agreement on further discussions. The lack of progress is unfortunate, but not surprising. As many observers noted before the meeting, while a diplomatic process provides the greatest chance for a peaceful resolution to the problem, there is no silver bullet; diplomacy will take time and will likely be fraught with stumbles and disagreements.

Fortunately, there is time to keep talking. Washington and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom) can and should continue to pursue diplomacy with patient persistence to ensure that Tehran does not proceed to build the bomb.

Recent Israeli and U.S. assessments of Iran's nuclear program suggest there is still time before Iran could have a viable nuclear weapons capability.  A new report from the independent International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released today provides a detailed technical analysis to support these assessments. The IISS researchers conclude that "it would take Iran at least two years to produce a single nuclear device," noting that "the timescale is significant because the likelihood of detection allows time for a negotiated solution."

Unfortunately, the Istanbul meeting has shown once again Tehran's unwillingness to take reasonable steps to dispel doubts about the purpose of its nuclear program. The proposals from the United States and its diplomatic partners put forward at the Istanbul meeting to build confidence were pragmatic and sharply contrasted with Iran's intransigent demand that certain preconditions be met before it agreed to negotiate.

U.S. diplomacy with Iran should continue in the same constructive spirit displayed in Istanbul, offering a realistic way forward, while maintaining international resolve if Iran refuses to take positive steps.

The P5+1's Constructive Approach

The P5+1 group put forward several confidence-building measures and maintained unity in response to Iran's terms for negotiations. A statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on behalf of the six countries following the discussions in Istanbul said that the P5+1 group "put forward detailed ideas including an updated version of the [Tehran Research Reactor] TRR fuel exchange agreement and ways to improve transparency...."

The original TRR proposal, floated by the United States in 2009, entailed Iran exporting 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad and receiving fuel for the TRR, which produces medical isotopes. Domestic political challenges in Tehran reversed an initial Iranian agreement to that proposal. Since that time, Iran has accumulated a stockpile of over 3,000 kilograms of LEU and has begun producing uranium enriched to 20%, the enrichment level required for the TRR fuel but also a significant step closer to the level required for nuclear weapons.

The updated TRR fuel swap proposal reportedly sought to capture more of Iran's stockpile of LEU, aimed at ensuring that Iran is left with an amount of LEU that is insufficient for a bomb. In doing so, the renewed proposal is also intended to maintain a key confidence-building element for the international community: because Iran has no near-term peaceful use for this material, agreeing to export it would be a way of demonstrating that Tehran also has no near-term military use for the enriched uranium.

The updated proposal would also reportedly require that Iran halt the production of 20% uranium and export the nearly 30 kilograms that it has produced. Because Iran would receive fuel for the TRR, it would have no reason to continue producing 20%-enriched uranium. Moreover, Iran is likely one-to-two years from being able to fabricate TRR fuel which is safe for use, and by agreeing to such a deal, Iran could receive both fuel for the reactor and potentially arrange to import medical isotopes in the interim.

Along those lines, the new proposal addresses the deficiencies the United States, Russia and France (the so-called Vienna Group) found in the Tehran Declaration agreed between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil in May of last year. Although the Vienna Group dismissed  the Tehran Declaration at the time--issuing a letter of response the very morning that Ankara and Brasilia were considering sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council, suggesting  a disinterest in bridging the diplomatic divide-- the substance of its  concerns was entirely appropriate. The Tehran Declaration did not address Iran's production of 20%-enriched uranium, nor did it incorporate Iran's production of LEU since October 2009.

In order to provide Iran with an incentive to export additional material, the renewed proposal would reportedly entail an agreement to convert LEU not used for the TRR into fuel for Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which is set to begin operations early this year. Iran already has a commitment from Russia, which built the Bushehr plant, to fuel the reactor for the next 10 years. Tehran claims that its enrichment effort is geared towards fueling the plant after that timeframe, even though Russia has not, and is not likely to provide Iran with the proprietary information to enable such a plan. By exporting Iran's LEU for fuel production in Russia, that material can be used for the very purpose claimed by Tehran. Such an arrangement can also provide a possible precedent for circumstances under which Iran's enrichment work can truly be dedicated for peaceful uses.

Iran as the Roadblock

Given the domestic political difficulty the Iranian negotiators encountered when they first agreed to the fuel swap in October 2009, winning Iran's agreement to an updated proposal during a single meeting may not have been possible. But by all appearances, the Iranian negotiating team arrived in Istanbul on a tight leash from Tehran. Although Iran did meet separately with the Vienna Group, presumably for focused discussions on the TRR proposal, Tehran was not willing to hold bilateral meetings with the Western members of the P5+1. This suggests not only that Iran was engaging in its once-successful strategy of finding and exploiting fissures among the P5+1, but also that the negotiators were not given the leeway to engage in a meaningful exchange with the West.

Iran's unwillingness to seriously negotiate in Istanbul was clearly evident by the substance of its position as well. Tehran put forward two preconditions for negotiations that effectively put the brakes on any possible forward movement: the lifting of UN sanctions, and an acknowledgement of Iran's claimed "right" to enrichment.

The condition that UN sanctions be lifted in order for negotiations to proceed not only contradicts Iran's claims that the sanctions are meaningless, but it was also entirely unrealistic.

As Ashton noted in her January 22 statement, the UN resolutions specify the circumstances under which sanctions would be relieved. Moreover, there is an ongoing and active effort to implement and strengthen the international sanctions, and the Security Council just appointed a panel of experts to assess their implementation in November.

Iran perhaps sought to take advantage of China and Russia's traditional reluctance to impose sanctions in order to open up fissures within the P5+1; an approach that was apparently unsuccessful. Tehran may also have hoped that by presenting maximal demands in the form of two preconditions, it may have had a better chance of protecting its option to enrich uranium.

Enrichment "Rights" and Responsibilities

One of Iran's consistent refrains is that it has a right, as a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium. Recognition of this claimed right has been a key diplomatic goal for Iran over the last several years. Indeed, the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program is just as much a matter of addressing the risks of enrichment as it is about the threat of nuclear weapons.

What Iran should understand is that an explicit right to enrichment does not exist in the NPT. Article IV of the treaty recognizes a state's "inalienable right" to "use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," on the condition that a state abides by its obligation not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Such peaceful uses under the NPT have generally been understood to include enrichment, and the treaty does not prohibit the development of such a capability, but the NPT does not expressly state that members have a right to enrich uranium.

More importantly, by demanding that the international community recognize a right to enrichment, Tehran is seeking to remove the conditionality of the right to peaceful nuclear energy. The work that Iran is believed to have carried out on weaponization constitutes a violation of Iran's NPT commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons, and it is not fully complying with its IAEA safeguards agreement, the mechanism by which a non-nuclear weapon state's adherence to the NPT is evaluated.

Iran's continued refusal to answer questions about its past nuclear activities and to provide more transparency about its current program effectively forfeits the very right it adamantly seeks to claim. The P5+1 was correct to refuse to recognize an unconditional right to a technology that is not essential to a country's peaceful nuclear program.

However, insistence that Iran has permanently forfeited any claim to enrichment is  untenable. Iran has made the preservation of an enrichment capability a critical national issue, and it is highly unlikely that Iran can be negotiated, sanctioned, or bombed out of maintaining such a capacity. And while many countries in the developing world appear to be wary of Iran's intentions, they are also cautious about efforts to restrict the development of dual-use nuclear fuel cycle technologies, making the effort to apply international pressure on Iran far more difficult if the aim is the permanent cessation of enrichment. We have already seen key middle powers, Brazil and Turkey (both Nuclear Suppliers Group members), agree in the Tehran Declaration that the NPT's right to peaceful nuclear energy encompasses the "nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities."

Therefore, while it is preferable on nonproliferation grounds that Iran forego an unnecessary, uneconomical, and proliferation sensitive enrichment program, it is not a nonproliferation requirement that it do so. Instead, Iran must be encouraged to constrain its enrichment program and to accept robust transparency measures that would both reveal and deter any misuse.

Secretary of State Clinton's comment to the BBC that Iran "can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations," provides the most appropriate formula to address the enrichment question, one which accurately characterizes Iran's real NPT rights and obligations. Tehran should consider that understanding carefully and then work to fulfill those international obligations.

Achieving Greater Transparency and Better Monitoring

Perhaps the most critical element of Iran's international obligations is to cooperate fully with IAEA inspectors and to provide complete information about the extent of its nuclear activities. One objective of the P5+1 group at Istanbul was to persuade Iran to agree to a series of basic transparency measures beyond the limited access Iran currently provides. This renewed focus on transparency by the six countries is a positive shift away from the narrow focus on the suspension of enrichment.

Although enrichment suspension remains an important confidence-building goal, and a UN Security Council requirement, it is not as important as increasing IAEA access to all of Iran's nuclear activities. As Iran's attempt to build a secret enrichment plant near Qom has shown, Tehran would rather produce weapons-grade material at an undeclared facility that is not subject to inspections, rather than its well-known and easily targeted Natanz plant. Therefore, focusing on steps in the near term for Iran to provide early design information for new nuclear facilities (as is already required under its safeguards agreement), and subjecting its centrifuge manufacturing process to IAEA inspections, would help to address the risk of clandestine facilities.

Persistent Diplomacy

Moving forward, Western countries will need to maintain their willingness to negotiate with Iran, including on the basis of practical confidence-building measures, while sustaining the international unity that has helped to place pressure on Tehran.

The United States and its allies have indicated that they will be examining ways to further strengthen implementation of the existing sanctions on Iran. Such a step may be necessary in the face of Iran's obstinacy at Istanbul, but care will need to be taken to ensure that additional punitive measures do not create openings between the six countries that Iran can once again exploit. For example, the behavior-focused penalties targeting Iranian entities involved in proliferation is a more constructive option than searching for new, unilateral economic sanctions that could split the international coalition now working together to sanction Iran for its nonproliferation noncompliance. Enhanced export controls and other means of slowing Iran's program should also be pursued.

Istanbul will not be the last opportunity to achieve progress. The P5+1 group has indicated that it is still willing to discuss its refined set of proposals with Iran. So long as Iran is unable or unwilling to agree to even the most common-sense assurances that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, Tehran will become increasingly isolated. Washington must pursue a patient but persistent diplomatic  approach to test Iran's willingness to change course. - Peter Crail