Iran Talks: What Should Be on the Table?
Upcoming negotiations are shadowed by Iran’s increasing uranium enrichment capabilities. Four nonproliferation experts provide a path for resolving the intensifying nuclear dispute.
March 22, 2012 12:24 pm (EST)
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Upcoming talks between Iran and the "P5+1" powers--the United States, the UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany--reportedly scheduled for April 13 in Geneva present a crucial opening to restart negotiations on Iran’s disputed nuclear program (Haaretz). Four nuclear security experts lay out what the priorities should be for the talks:
All agree on the need to address immediate proliferation risks, including halting Iran’s accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium. David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security says the negotiations should focus on laying the groundwork for a long-term accord and reject any Iranian effort to trade short-term concessions for a reduction in sanctions. Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies recommends the international community propose technical measures that make it difficult for Tehran to enrich uranium above 20 percent levels in the future. Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association argues that a permanent enrichment halt is unrealistic, and says the talks should instead aim to link enrichment capacity to the actual needs of Iran’s nuclear power reactors. Jonathan Pearl, a former CFR fellow, says the P5+1 should revisit and update earlier fuel swap proposals in exchange for Iranian concessions.
The goal of upcoming negotiations should be a framework agreement that incorporates a series of stages where each step includes concessions from Iran matched with incentives or concessions from the P5+1. Negotiations should also focus on laying the groundwork for a long-term accord that will likely take several years.
Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament
Certain measures deserve priority in the initial negotiations. The first is an Iranian commitment to cap all enrichment at 5 percent and freeze the installation of additional centrifuges at the Qom enrichment plant. Iran could also address at least some IAEA concerns about the military dimensions of its past nuclear efforts.
The United States and its allies should be prepared to provide Iran with commensurate incentives, including the provision of 19.75 percent enriched uranium fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR); the supply of 19.75 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) targets for medical isotope production in this reactor; a supply of medical isotopes of the type that the TRR would produce; and a commitment by the P5 +1 not to seek new UN Security Council sanctions for a defined period of time. At the same time, the United States and its allies should reject any Iranian effort to trade interim measures for a reduction in sanctions.
Negotiations should also focus on laying the groundwork for a long-term accord that will likely take several years.
In previous negotiations, Iran has sought to establish an essentially unbridled right to uranium enrichment. But the P5+1 is unlikely to acknowledge this without a verified assurance that it is in compliance with the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, something lacking today.
ISIS has proposed a five-stage framework agreement with Iran:
Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament
- Updated, verified "freeze for freeze" agreement
- Iran coming clean in a verifiable manner about its nuclear weaponization activities, and receiving significant sanctions relief and security guarantees
- Intensive IAEA verification, temporary suspension of sensitive Iranian nuclear programs, and provisional suspension of UN Security Council sanctions
- IAEA certification of absence of undeclared nuclear materials and facilities, end of suspension of Iran’s nuclear programs, provision of major incentives package, and end of U.S. sanctions
- Growth of Iran’s civil nuclear program and end of all remaining sanctions
Limiting the goal to achieving only interim measures will offer, at best, temporary benefits to the United States and a brief respite from the risk of war. The P5+1 should not leave the outlines of a long-term agreement to future talks.
The immediate aim of the upcoming talks is to build confidence that Iran will not be able to make a quick sprint to build nuclear weapons. This will require limits on its nuclear program and greater transparency. The limits mandated by successive UN Security Council resolutions remain the ideal: suspension of the nuclear activities that cause concern. There is no chance, however, that Iran will cave in completely after six years of resisting this demand.
Iran might agree to suspend 20 percent enrichment, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered last autumn, in exchange for the provision of fuel enriched to that level for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). But now that Iran can produce TRR fuel plates on its own, albeit with safety certification problems, his offer may be overtaken by events. Persuading Iran to depart with its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would be even more difficult, although two years ago, at least Iran accepted the principle that a portion of its enriched product could be exported.
Unlike the IAEA, the P5+1 can offer immunity from further penalties if Iran agrees to grant access that might confirm past work on weaponization.
Iran would be more willing to forego steps it has not yet taken, such as enrichment above 20 percent--a move it might someday try to justify on grounds that medical isotopes can be produced more efficiently if targets for the TRR are made of highly enriched uranium (HEU). The P5+1 could offer HEU targets in order to preempt any such excuse. To enhance confidence that enrichment is kept below 20 percent (or, better, 5 percent), technical measures should be proposed that would make it more difficult to adjust centrifuge cascades to enrich at higher levels. The IAEA should also be allowed to detect enrichment levels at Fordow and Natanz on a real-time basis, without only having to rely on sending environmental samples back to Austria for time-consuming analysis.
For increased transparency, Iran should be pressed to follow standard IAEA rules by reporting new facilities before they are built (the Code 3.1 requirement), and to again provisionally implement the Additional Protocol. Iran should also be persuaded to grant IAEA access to facilities, individuals, and documents associated with the alleged nuclear activities with "possible military dimensions," as the IAEA puts it. Unlike the IAEA, the P5+1 can offer immunity from further penalties if Iran agrees to grant access that might confirm past work on weaponization.
Iran continues to improve its uranium enrichment capabilities and already has some of the expertise needed to build nuclear weapons. But it is clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is neither imminent nor inevitable.
One high-profile meeting will not, however, produce a long-term deal. Progress requires a sustained, serious dialogue consisting of high-level and technical meetings on a multilateral and bilateral basis.
To begin, the negotiators need to seek agreement on confidence-building steps that address the highest priority proliferation risks. Iran’s growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would allow Iran to shorten its time frame to produce weapons, if it chose to do so. The P5+1 should test Iran’s offer to stop enriching to 20 percent if it receives fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, and secure agreement on the removal of its existing 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile.
Another key objective should be to secure more intrusive IAEA access to all of Iran’s nuclear-related sites under the terms of the IAEA Additional Protocol and convince Tehran to finally address the agency’s questions about suspected weapons-related work at key sites, including Parchin. This would reduce the risk of clandestine nuclear work and reduce the risk to Iran of even tighter international sanctions.
The long term P5+1 goal should be to limit enrichment levels to normal reactor fuel grade, link enrichment capacity to the actual needs of Iran’s nuclear power reactors, and establish a more robust system of inspections.
A permanent uranium enrichment halt, as called for by some, would be ideal, but is not realistic given Iran’s existing enrichment capacity and the strong support for enrichment across the Iranian political spectrum.
Rather, the long-term P5+1 goal should be to limit enrichment levels to normal reactor fuel grade, link enrichment capacity to the actual needs of Iran’s nuclear power reactors, and establish a more robust system of inspections.
Responsible leaders in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere understand that sanctions have bought time and improved negotiating leverage, but will not, in isolation, persuade Tehran’s leaders to halt their sensitive nuclear activities. They also see that the "military option" 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.
There is no guarantee that diplomacy and pressure will be effective in convincing Iran’s current and future leaders they stand to gain more from forgoing nuclear weapons than from any decision to build them. But it’s the best option on the table.
The Obama administration has publicly committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Some ambiguities remain about Washington’s red lines, but the failure of a new round of P5+1 negotiations could bring the United States closer to war, whether on its own accord or as a consequence of Israeli strikes that draw America to the defense of its ally.
Given the stakes, a wide variety of options must be on the table during the upcoming round of talks with Iran, provided the outcome is an effective end to the threat of Iranian weaponization.
As an opening gambit, the United States and its partners should revisit and update earlier fuel swap proposals in exchange for Iranian concessions of immediate importance, including suspending work at the deeply buried Fordow facility as well as halting production of 20 percent enriched uranium. Despite the failure of previous efforts, continually tightening sanctions on Iran’s petroleum and banking sectors and the lingering threat of military strikes might yet force Tehran’s hand.
The failure of a new round of P5+1 negotiations could bring the United States closer to war, whether on its own accord or as a consequence of Israeli strikes that draw America to the defense of its ally.
The goal would be to determine whether Tehran is finally willing and able to compromise, or simply looking to buy time in anticipation of the upcoming IAEA Board of Governors decision on whether to send its file back to the UN Security Council.
If Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proves amenable to compromise, the P5+1 and Iran could pursue a series of confidence-building measures over the coming months, with strict but realistic deadlines for compliance, and penalties for noncompliance.
The more difficult question is what should be on the table if the P5+1 talks progress to the next stage. Some Iran experts believe that a comprehensive deal will only be possible if it permits Iran to retain, for example, a small-scale uranium enrichment capacity. These terms might seem unpalatable but, interestingly, the Obama administration has not yet ruled out such an option.
Far-reaching discussions are, however, a long way off. Iran could take a first step in that direction by settling its accounts with the IAEA and the UN Security Council, providing IAEA inspectors full access to all sites of interest, and ending its support for terrorist organizations.