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IRAN: Nuclear Negotiations

Author: Lionel Beehner
May 16, 2005

What is the status of Europe's nuclear negotiations with Iran?

They are in trouble. Since October 2003, Iran and three members of the European Union (EU)--Britain, France, and Germany--have engaged in negotiations to ensure that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. The Europeans have asked Iran to relinquish its uranium-enrichment program because the technology can easily be adapted for military uses. Iranians, however, say they will not give up what they see as their sovereign right to enrich uranium as part of a peaceful nuclear program. In recent weeks, the stances of both sides have toughened. A last-ditch attempt at reviving the talks will take place in Geneva May 25.

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What are the latest developments in the crisis?

Iran has repeatedly indicated it intends to break the terms of a November 2004 Iran-EU agreement in which Iran agreed to temporarily suspend all uranium-enrichment activities during negotiations over the long-term fate of its nuclear program. Iranian diplomats say that Europe has failed to offer incentives that would encourage them to modify their nuclear goals. Recent examples of Iranian threats include:

  • On May 8, Iran threatened to resume reprocessing uranium at its Isfahan reactor, which was stopped last year as part of the November agreement.
  • On May 9, Iran admitted for the first time it had converted 37 tons of naturally occurring uranium ore concentrate, or yellowcake, into the gas uranium tetrafluoride (UF-4) before freezing its nuclear-related activity as part of the agreement. UF-4 can rapidly be converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF-6), a gas used in centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium.
  • On May 15, Iran's conservative-dominated parliament passed a resolution backing the government's right to enrich uranium as part of a peaceful nuclear program and calling for a resumption of enrichment.
How has Europe reacted to Iran's moves?

European negotiators sent a letter on May 11 to Iran's chief nuclear official, Hassan Rowhani, warning Tehran that if it restarted nuclear activities, negotiations would end and "the consequences could only be negative for Iran." Some European officials called for an emergency session of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based organization that monitors proliferation. If the IAEA found substantial evidence that Iran is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)--the 1968 international agreement that regulates the spread of nuclear weapons technology--or other agreements, it would be obliged to refer Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

Is this a departure from Europe's past dealings with Iran?

Yes. In the past, Europe has generally taken a softer stance on Iran, experts say. In June 2004, for example, Iran reneged on an October 2003 agreement to halt enrichment activities. At that time, however, the United States, not the Europeans, threatened U.N. Security Council action. Europe has preferred to negotiate with Tehran directly, offer generous incentive packages, and block efforts by the United States and Israel to refer Iran to the Security Council for its nuclear activities. "Traditionally, the United States has always been waving the stick while the Europeans have offered carrots," says Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate and nuclear expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. "Now, Europe is beginning to think in terms of some sticks too."

Will the Europeans and Iran meet to discuss the latest impasse?

Most likely. After receiving the European letter, Iranian diplomats agreed to meet with French, German, and British negotiators and said they would postpone their decision to resume nuclear activities. But experts don't expect any major breakthroughs in the talks. Iran is headed into its June 17 presidential election, experts say, and polls show that nuclear power is popular among Iranians. "No candidate wants to be seen as giving away Iran's [nuclear] rights," Bunn says.

What are the ground rules of the EU-Iran negotiations?

The November 14, 2004, agreement called for an immediate freeze of Iran's enrichment activities, increased inspections under an Additional Protocol of the NPT, and the tagging and sealing Iranian centrifuges and other nuclear components to guarantee they could not be used. The freeze was not intended to be a final arrangement but rather a "confidence-building measure" to be upheld before further negotiations could take place.

What was wrong with the November agreement?

It was too vaguely worded, some experts argue. The wording of the resolution, which called the ban "voluntary" and "non-legally binding," left room for Tehran to assert a different interpretation of the agreement, these experts say. Iran, for example, argues that converting uranium into UF-4 does not qualify as enrichment and is therefore allowed under the agreement. The Europeans disagree.

What does Iran hope to get out of negotiations?

Publicly, at least, the Iranians have said they want "their sovereign right to enrich uranium," says Charles D. Ferguson II, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Iranians argue that right includes, among other things, the ability to build multiple commercial-use nuclear reactors, enrich their own nuclear fuel versus having to acquire it from Europe or Russia, and add 3,000 or more centrifuges to their current arsenal of around 100. Some experts say Iran is practicing brinksmanship in order to bargain for better concessions from Europe. "Iran is saying, 'Where are the sweeteners? We want something to show for our efforts,'" Ferguson says. Iran has called for major investments in its economy from Europe, particularly in its oil industry, specific security guarantees, and support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization.

What is Europe's objective?

"A quasi-permanent halt to enrichment-related activities," Bunn says. "No one is talking about Iran completely abandoning its civilian nuclear program." Rather, the Europeans want Iran to forgo the "sensitive" aspects of its nuclear program. The reason is not because enriching uranium is illegal--it is not, under international treaty rules--but because the technology for making low-enriched uranium for civilian reactors is nearly identical to that for making highly enriched uranium for atomic bombs. "[The Iranians] already have some capacity for enrichment," says Ray Takeyh, senior fellow of Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The question becomes the scope and scale of the program."

What leverage does Europe have over Iran's nuclear objectives?

It has some, experts say. The European Union is Iran's largest supplier of goods, comprising some 37 percent of its total imports. "Together, these states must raise the economic stakes of Iran's nuclear aspirations," wrote Takeyh and Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in a recent Foreign Affairs article. "They must force Tehran to confront a painful choice: either nuclear weapons or economic health."

What is the likelihood negotiations with Iran will succeed?

Not very good, experts say. "The negotiations have not been satisfactory in terms of giving [the Iranians] what they want," says Lawrence Scheinman, a nonproliferation expert at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies. "I think we're just treading water."

If Tehran follows up on threats to resume its enrichment activities in the near future, the Europeans would likely push the IAEA to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.

What happens then?

If the Security Council finds "irrefutable evidence" Iran is developing a nuclear-weapons program, it will have to take decisive action, Scheinman says. "It could make life difficult for [the Iranians]," he says, either by lodging economic sanctions or placing other trade restrictions on Iran. Most experts, however, say sanctions are unlikely because several Security Council members--namely China and Russia--have strong interests in Iran's oil industry. If brought before the United Nations, a senior Iranian diplomat told the Financial Times May 10 that Iran would retaliate by resuming enrichment activities at its Natanz plant, a nuclear-research facility that suspended its enrichment-related activities in 2003.

What is the U.S. role in negotiations?

Its current role is largely consultative. The United States refuses to deal with the Iranians directly and says it continues to support talks between Europe and Iran.

But if Iran violates the November 2004 agreement, said State Department spokesman Richard A. BoucherMay 10, "the choice is up to [the Europeans] how to respond." The United States has repeatedly spoken out in favor of bringing Iran before the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear violations.

Is a military strike possible?

Using military force against Tehran is "simply not on the agenda at this point in time," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said February 5. On the other hand, U.S. policy-makers have refused to rule out the option of a military strike. In one such scenario, the United States or Israel could carry out a disabling pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. On April 26, the Pentagon announced plans to sell Israel 100 so-called bunker-buster bombs which are capable of reaching Iran's underground nuclear facilities. However, Iranian officials have issued strongly worded warnings against such an attack, saying they would retaliate. And many experts doubt that U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear facilities is strong enough to guarantee the entire program would be eliminated in such an attack.

by Lionel Beehner, staff writer, cfr.org

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