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Waiting on Iran Nuclear Talks

Interviewee: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 26, 2012

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The drawn-out talks between Iran and the P5 +1 nations (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) over Iran's nuclear program are expected by a number of experts to resume after the U.S. presidential elections. Daryl G. Kimball, a veteran arms control expert, says Iran could be more flexible in the next set of discussions "given how hard and sharply these current sanctions are biting right now." But he stresses that Iran must be willing to start off by agreeing to suspend 20 percent uranium enrichment work – which brings it close to weapons grade -- at its underground Fordow facility in exchange for nuclear fuel provided to a research facility.

There's been no recent progress with regards to Iran's nuclear program: In fact, Iran has increased its capacity to produce enriched uranium, and there's serious concern that Iran is trying to weaponize its nuclear program despite its denials. What's your view on the outlook on the state of these negotiations?

If we look at what the status of Iran's nuclear program is today, the bottom line is that Iran is gradually and steadily improving its uranium enrichment capacity.

Within the last twelve months the dialogue has resumed again, but the history of negotiations with Iran shows that these long-standing and difficult issues are not resolved in one meeting or one weekend. This is a process. If we look at what the status of Iran's nuclear program is today, the bottom line is that Iran is gradually and steadily improving its uranium enrichment capacity. It is building a heavy-water reactor at a site called Arak, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continues to seek an agreement with Iran to investigate the many questions that have accumulated over the years about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear program, most of which date back to the pre-2004 period.

Can the Iranians make nuclear weapons now?

Iran still does not have enough low-enriched uranium, if further enriched to weapons-grade, to build more than one to four or five nuclear bombs. It is years, not months, away from having a working nuclear arsenal. There is time to reach a deal that addresses the most urgent proliferation concerns about Iran's program, but we can't be wasting our time. That effort needs to be pursued with vigor and creativity to break the impasse that currently exists in these P5+1 Iran talks.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the former Iranian nuclear negotiator, claims that it's the West that has been inflexible in its dealings with Iran. Do you agree?

Mousavian has offered some creative ideas that are not necessarily the ideas of the current Iranian [administration] but are worth looking at. To summarize, what Iran is seeking is relief from the very devastating sanctions that are now in place. What they have been offering, as of late, is what they call a five-step plan that would have them offer transparency measures, confidence-building steps to strengthen cooperation on mutual interests that [extend] beyond the nuclear issue. But before Iran takes concrete steps to expand the monitoring of their nuclear facilities by the IAEA, they want the P5+1 to terminate the U.N. Security Council sanctions and remove Iran's nuclear file from the Security Council agenda. In other words, they are not offering to restrain their nuclear program before sanctions relief begins.

On the P5+1 side, the sequencing is exactly the opposite. The trick is going to be for the two sides to reach agreement about a mutually beneficial initial confidence-building step that also gives them more time to work through the longer-term issues regarding the nuclear program, as well as the broader regional security issues that have bedeviled the U.S.-Iranian relationship for more than forty years. Many of us believe that the best initial confidence-building step that can be achieved is to revive the arrangement by which Iran would suspend its production of 20 percent-enriched uranium and stop accumulating a 20 percent-enriched uranium stockpile, which is much closer to weapons grade, in exchange for a supply of fuel for its Tehran research reactor that is used to produce medical isotopes. This deal would be a win-win for both sides and it would address the most urgent proliferation risk from our perspective, which is the accumulation of 20 percent-enriched uranium that takes Iran very far along the way towards the 90 percent-enriched level for weapons-grade material.

In the talks that were held this past spring and summer, were these matters discussed? And why did it end with no agreement?

At these talks, the P5+1 proposal, as we understand it, was that they were calling on Iran to halt all 20 percent-enrichment activities, which are going on at the underground Fordow facility and to transfer all 20 percent-enriched uranium in its possession to a third country under IAEA custody, and they want Iran to shut down the Fordow facility completely.

The P5+1 is offering to provide fuel assemblies for the TRR [Tehran Research Reactor] reactor, the relatively small research reactor in Tehran, which doesn't produce electric power but rather helps produce medical isotopes for cancer therapy treatment. The ostensible reason for the 20 percent-enrichment work that Iran is currently doing is to supply this research reactor. By suspending the 20 percent-enrichment at Fordow, Iran could go a long way to address the concerns that many of us have that Iran is trying to create the capacity to move up to weapons-grade enrichment.

Many of us believe that Iran may be more flexible in the next round or two of discussions given how hard and sharply these current sanctions are biting right now.

The P5+1 is also offering cooperation and technical support for some of Iran's nuclear work, including helping Iran acquire a light water research reactor using low enriched fuel to produce medical isotopes so that the TRR can be phased out. Iran looked at this and they said no because they do not want to shut down the Fordow facility, their second enrichment facility, that is now about two-thirds filled to capacity with centrifuges. Many of us believe that Iran may be more flexible in the next round or two of discussions given how hard and sharply these current sanctions are biting right now. There's one other issue that is bedeviling the P5+1 talks, even though it's not [currently up for] discussion, and that is the IAEA's ongoing effort to get access to personnel and facilities within Iran's nuclear facilities to investigate whether Iran has ended experiments that are related to nuclear weapons and can be used to help pursue a nuclear weapons program.

You're referring to the controversy over the Parchin military base?

At the Parchin facility it is believed that Iran had conducted, prior to 2004, experiments on implosion physics. This is not the only facility of interest to the IAEA, but it is one of the most important. Earlier this spring, Iran agreed to sit down with the agency to work out a structured approach to the IAEA's investigation. One of the key stumbling blocks was that Iran wants the IAEA to only be allowed to visit some of these sites once. As an investigative body, the IAEA cannot agree ahead of time that they're going to visit Parchin once, look around, investigate, and then no matter what they find say that we will never come back again. The Iranian concern is probably that this investigation goes on and on and on, and one visit leads to another and another and another. But that's the way it needs to be if the IAEA finds something of concern and they need to pursue it. If the Iranians do not agree to this plan their negotiating leverage in the P5+1 talks will be severely diminished. It's in their interest to resolve these questions to improve IAEA confidence that they are not still secretly pursuing nuclear weapons work.

Are there any indications that the talks will resume again after the U.S. elections?

There have been clear signals from Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who is spearheading the P5+1 group, and also from the Iranians, that they are hoping to organize another high-level meeting sometime in late November or perhaps in December, probably in Istanbul, where they met the first time this year. Senior Iranian officials express greater optimism about progress in this next round. I am skeptical. I will be convinced when I see actual progress.

There is the possibility of progress in the next round, but it's going to require that both sides be more flexible and a little more creative. For instance, the P5+1 has demanded, for several years now, that Iran suspend all enrichment work, whether it's 20 percent enrichment or fuel-grade enrichment, which is 3.5 percent, as a confidence-building measure. The Iranians, having suspended enrichment in the 2003-2005 period, do not want to be caught in a situation where they're under an indefinite suspension that lasts years and years and years. We need to recognize that the opportunity for a long-term suspension of all uranium enrichment work has come and gone. Iran now has a very significant number of centrifuges on the ground. It is likely in a long-term resolution that Iran would, at some level, continue to spin centrifuges. But they should only do so for fuel-grade purposes under stringent IAEA inspection, and there must be limits on the amount of uranium and the grade of the uranium that they can accumulate. The demands that Iran suspend all enrichment work is a demand that is not likely to be [met], and so, going into the next round of talks, members of Congress, the next administration, whether it's Obama or Romney, need to recognize that reality.

Whatever happens after the election, the most important thing is that the P5+1 process resumes and that it be a much more dynamic negotiation that is not simply a reiteration of previous well-understood positions.

Direct U.S.-Iranian talks would be helpful since tough nuclear negotiations, whether between the United States and Russia or the United States and North Korea, are most effective and successful when they're [held] on an ongoing basis, when a real exchange of ideas can take place. I see any additional opportunity to deepen the dialogue with Iran as useful. Whatever happens after the election, the most important thing is that the P5+1 process resumes and that it be a much more dynamic negotiation that is not simply a reiteration of previous well-understood positions.

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