The following piece was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor on April 23, 2012.
Talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul April 14 show that negotiations aimed at addressing Tehran's nuclear ambitions appear to be on track. Diplomatic momentum should quell loose talk about the 'military option.' The top priority now must be to halt Iran's uranium enrichment.
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. Though 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 involving senior officials from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the two sides will hold expert-level talks and then will meet again 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 fuel-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 these levels has the potential to significantly shorten 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 fuel for the Tehran Research 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-reactor grade of about 4 percent as a first step toward restricting Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful uses.
The principle that Iran would only enrich according to its 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 must press Iran to improve cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran must fully implement its safeguards agreement intended to verify that its program is peaceful. It must finally answer longstanding questions about suspected nuclear weapons-related research prior to 2003.
Further transparency measures would reduce the risk of clandestine nuclear work outside of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities. Those facilities 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.
The IAEA and Iran have been haggling over the IAEA’s plan to address these issues in recent weeks, with Iran seeking limits on access. It is past time for Iran’s supreme leader and his team to provide the transparency necessary to ensure that his religious fatwa against nuclear weapons is genuine.
If these and other confidence building steps are taken, the international negotiators could offer to delay the imposition of a European oil embargo, due to begin in July.
In contrast to the last round of talks held 15 months ago, the more serious Iranian approach at the recent talks is a result of the international sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran, which is now at an all-time high. As a result, both sides are coming forward with more pragmatic proposals.
The new momentum for diplomacy should quell loose talk about the so-called military option, which would be ineffective and counterproductive. Air strikes on Iran’s 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 will undoubtedly complain that further negotiations with Iran only allow Iran to ‘buy time’ for nefarious nuclear pursuits. Such thinking is illogical and dangerous.
The reality is that international and national sanctions will remain in place until Iran takes the steps necessary to provide confidence it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. And if Washington and its negotiation partners do not seize the potential diplomatic opportunities, the international support necessary to maintain pressure on Iran will erode.
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.