ACA Analysis of Moscow Round of Talks

(The following appeared as an ArmsControlNow blog post, P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks: Slowly Moving Toward a Deal? on June 19, 2012)

By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association

Given the infrequency of serious, direct talks with Tehran on its disputed nuclear program, the failure to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in Moscow this week is disappointing but not surprising. At the same time, there was no breakdown and there will be follow-on technical talks in Istanbul on July 3.

The meetings over the past three months have yielded greater clarity on the positions of the sides and point-by-point engagement – a necessary and long overdue, if insufficient, step in reaching an ultimate resolution of the crisis.

As tough as the P5+1 talks have been, diplomacy remains the best option to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. There is still time and an opportunity for diplomacy, but it is essential to reach a deal to prevent that 20% enriched uranium stockpile from growing and soon.

As EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said on behalf of the P5+1 group in her press conference:

“In the last session Dr. Jalili and I spoke about the fact that nobody in that room wants talks for talks sake. And the fact is that they did begin to address the substance for the first time. But there is a very, very long way to go. And I’m sure that Dr. Jalili would say that too.  And that is why we decided on the process that I’ve identified to try and move forward.”

Following an "early follow-on technical meeting" in Istanbul on July 3 to provide further clarification about the P5+1 proposal and "increase understanding of the Iranian response," Ashton said in a written statement there will be further contact at the deputy-level and then an evaluation of "prospects for a future meeting at the political level."

A review of the respective proposals put forward by each side suggests there are still gaps, but that an initial confidence building deal is still within reach if both sides provide greater flexibility and creativity.

None of the five proposals reportedly put forward by the Iranian negotiating team are automatic non-starters. At least three provide a basis for further bargaining:

  • Iran’s reported proposal for “operationalizing” the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons appears to be a direct response to the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
  • Iran’s call for sanctions relief in return for cooperation with the IAEA could even be considered a paraphrase of the UN Security Council promise of sanctions relief if sufficient cooperation is provided. The key is what kind of cooperation and IAEA inspections Iran would agree to allow and when.
  • Iran’s reported offer to consider limits on enrichment to 20% percent levels also provides a basis for an initial confidence-building deal that would address the most urgent proliferation risk.

The task now is to acquire sufficient detail on the proposals, sort out sequencing issues, and recalibrate positions to achieve a win-win deal at the next round of discussions.

The top priority for the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, France, and China) must continue to be a deal that halts Iran's accumulation of 20% enriched uranium—which is above normal fuel-grade and closer to weapons grade—in exchange for fuel assemblies for its Tehran Research Reactor and medical isotopes.

This would reinforce the principle that Iran has the "right" under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty only to enrich in full compliance with safeguards and only for its civilian power needs and could serve as a basis for a broader deal to limit the size and scope of its enrichment program.

A deal to halt enrichment above normal fuel grade would address the highest priority proliferation problem and provide negotiators with more time to address other key issues.

To help get to “yes,” the P5+1 should offer to formally delay or "suspend" the European oil embargo set to begin next month, and/or offer to ease the restrictions European shipping insurers from covering ships that carry Iranian oil to buyers around the world. The effect would largely be symbolic since most EU states have already stopped buying Iranian oil. If Iran does not follow through with tangible steps, these new sanctions could be formally reinstated.

Failure to find a way to halt Iran’s accumulation of 20% enriched uranium would be irresponsible, as it would make it easier for Iran to acquire a faster nuclear weapons breakout capability.

For its part, Iran could make a deal -- and possible sanctions relief – more likely if it would fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on inspections of key sites and personnel to ensure that past weapons-related experiments have been discontinued. Last month, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano reported that agreement on a structured approach for resolving outstanding concerns was close at hand. Iran must also clarify when it will allow IAEA inspections under the terms of the additional protocol.

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.

Sanctions Alone Won’t Work; Military Options Are Ineffective, Counterproductive

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, naïve, 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.

Iran’s enrichment program goes no faster or slower as talks continue. But without a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear pursuits, Iran’s capabilities will only grow over time.

Nonproliferation and military experts agree that the so-called military option remains woefully ineffective and would be highly 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.

Enrichment “Rights” and Realities

In Moscow, Iran’s negotiators once again made it clear that they will not compromise Iran’s so-called “right” to enrich uranium under Article IV of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Meanwhile back in Washington, some U.S. politicians insist that the goal should be to prevent any enrichment activity inside Iran. Neither position is realistic.

The position of United States and its negotiating partners have correctly pointed out that under the NPT, Iran must also comply with its IAEA safeguards obligations. The Barack Obama administration and its P5+1 partners have made it clear that under very strict conditions Iran would, sometime in the future, having responded to the international community’s concerns about nuclear weapons-related experiments have such a right under IAEA inspections.

In other words, a permanent uranium-enrichment halt would be beneficial and very welcome, but it is not necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and it is not realistic given the strong support for enrichment across the political spectrum in Iran.

Tying enrichment amounts and levels to the actual needs of Iran’s nuclear power plants, combined with more extensive IAEA safeguards, could sufficiently guard against a nuclear-armed Iran.

There Is Still Time for Diplomacy

Iran has still not made a strategic decision to pursue nuclear weapons and does not yet have the necessary ingredients for an effective nuclear arsenal, but its uranium enrichment capabilities are improving.

The IAEA’s May 25 report indicates that Iran continues to make steady progress enriching uranium to 5% U-235 (from 5451 kg in Feb. 2012 to 6197 in May 2012) and 20% U-235 (from 95.4 kg to 145.6 kg). However, Iran has still not installed more advanced centrifuges that could significantly increase its uranium enrichment output.

Iran has used a large portion of its uranium enriched to 20% U-235–about 43 kg– for fabricating fuel plates for its Tehran Research Reactor, which effectively leaves its current 20% stockpile relatively unchanged, as of May 15.

To reduce the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran, it is essential to reach a deal to prevent that 20% enriched uranium stockpile from growing and soon.