’Huge Gap’ Frustrates Iran Talks

This week’s nuclear talks ended without resolving the issue of uranium enrichment, leaving Iran to potentially face tougher sanctions, says CFR’s Ray Takeyh.

June 20, 2012

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


After meetings concluded in Moscow between six world powers and Iran over its nuclear program, fundamental disagreements remain going into a lower-level July 3 meeting in Istanbul, says CFR Iran expert Ray Takeyh. The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany (P5+1) have insisted during three rounds of negotiations that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment program, particularly enriching uranium to a 20 percent level, in return for sanctions relief, says Takeyh. Iran first wants acknowledgment of its right to uranium enrichment, says Takeyh. Takeyh says the Obama administration is seeking a "reliable, durable" arms control agreement, but that diplomatic efforts are frustrated "by the sort of Iranian intransigencies that we are witnessing."

The July 3 meeting in Istanbul will be at the technical level to see if developments warrant another round of talks. What’s your view of the situation?

There is still a huge gap between the two sides. It is traditional Iranian statecraft to give little and hope to get a lot. So Iranians came into these negotiations with some rather extraordinary demands, particularly [that] their right to uranium enrichment be officially recognized--which is impossible, given the fact that the enrichment stands in violation of Security Council resolutions and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ( IAEA) board of governor’s injunctions. The United States and the other powers just could not get the Iranians to abandon that demand and their demand for substantial sanctions relief in exchange for discussing the disposition of their uranium enriched to 20 percent.

What do the group of six and the Security Council want from Iran? Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows nuclear development for peaceful uses. Why the issue?

The United Nations’ six Security Council resolutions have asked Iran to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities, have asked Iran to come to terms with the IAEA regarding previous or ongoing weaponization activities, and to clarify all ambiguities regarding its nuclear program. At this point, Iran has not discharged those obligations, [which] go back to 2006. So for some six years, Iran has rebuffed those demands from the international community. In these particular talks that have just taken place, the talks focused more specifically on this 20 percent enrichment. The world powers asked Iran to stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium [which can more easily be converted to weapons grade uranium], to ship out the existing supplies of 20 percent enriched uranium, and to shut down the Fordow underground facility, which is being used to enrich uranium to the 20 percent level. Iran rejected those requests.

Hadn’t Iran agreed to ship out the 20 percent uranium?

They were sending signals before the Istanbul meeting in April that they were prepared to deal with the 20 percent issue, and there were some indications that they were prepared to maybe ship some out of the country, but it was all very ambiguous. Ultimately their diplomats seemed to be willing to discuss the 20 percent issue, but first they made a series of demands that they wanted to have met, which, as I said, were rather extraordinary.

But I was thinking back, about two years ago.

In October of 2009, Iran had agreed to ship out, but at that time it didn’t have any 20 percent enriched uranium. It had merely 3.5 percent enriched and it had agreed to ship out a substantial portion of that for reprocessing into fuel abroad, but it eventually reneged on that offer.

Are the United State and other Western countries concerned that if the talks don’t make progress, military action is in the cards?

That’s always a concern. I’m not sure if it is an immediate or imminent concern, because at this point these talks are continuing in some format, and maybe there will be some progress made at the technical level next month to try to bridge the gap between these two parties. Diplomacy is continuing, although in a slightly different reformulation.

What is Iran really seeking?

That’s essentially what their diplomacy wants--an official acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the nuclear program and then to proceed to expand that nuclear program while conceding perhaps to a more reliable inspection regime.

In these particular talks and this particular diplomacy, to the extent that it is seeking an agreement, Iran wants to have an accord whereby it gets to legitimize its nuclear program and expand it so that Iran can have a vast nuclear infrastructure. In turn, Iran would agree to perhaps more intrusion in the inspection regime. That’s essentially what their diplomacy wants--an official acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the nuclear program and then to proceed to expand that nuclear program while conceding perhaps to a more reliable inspection regime.

And what is the P5+1 view?

Mainly that, first of all, Iran has some legal obligations to attend to. It has to conform to Security Council resolutions and suspend this nuclear enrichment program. It has to come to terms with the IAEA about all infractions and ambiguities, and then there can be a conversation about what kind of a civilian nuclear program it should have.

What is your sense about Iran and the militarization of its program?

My suspicion all along has been that Iran wants to have at least the option of developing a nuclear weapons program. Some of the nuclear activities Iranians have engaged in have limited explanation other than a military intent. In some way, this is a nuclear weapons program, but they are still far away from producing weapons; I do think the overall intent of this program is weaponry as opposed to domestic energy production [which is the justification that Iran gives for its enrichment program].

You worked in the Obama administration as a State Department adviser on Iran. What is your sense of the Obama administration’s view on this issue now?

Whether you can have an arms control agreement with this particular regime and whether you can have a reliable one are questions being tested every day. So far we seem to be far away from postitive answers.

The administration wants to have a reliable, durable arms control agreement, and it wants to accomplish that through diplomatic channels, but those diplomatic channels are awfully frustrated by the sort of Iranian intransigencies we are witnessing. Whether you can have an arms control agreement with this particular regime and whether you can have a reliable one are questions being tested every day. So far, we seem to be far away from postitive answers.

When is the major increase in sanctions supposed to take place?

On June 30 and July 1, two sets of sanctions will kick in. First, the American sanctioning of the Iranian Central Bank will kick in, and it will have some impact on Iranian commerce. Second, the European oil embargo will start on July 1. The impact of that may not be as substantial as people think, because about 85-90 percent of European oil trade with Iran has already stopped, so only a few countries in Europe are actually continuing to purchase Iranian oil--perhaps only Italy.

The European sanctions bill has other implications for Iran. One in particular is the prohibition of European companies from insuring Iranian oil tankers. That’s a huge thing, because the shipping insurance business is located primarily in Europe, and if European firms are not willing to insure tanker traffic through Iran, it is going to be more complicated for Iran to try to ship its oil to those customers who are still willing to purchase it, such as South Korea and so on.

Who are the big importers of Iranian oil? China?

There’s China, Japan, and so far South Korea--although I expect that will stop after July 1--and India.

What would you guess the situation will be at the end of summer?

I suspect that Iran’s economy is going to be a little bit more stressed as a result of those sanctions measures. I’m not quite sure if that intensified stress is going to have an impact on their negotiations because I think they have made a decision to endure the economic penalties as a price for nuclear empowerment. Whether in practice they can do so remains to be seen in the long term, but I think that in the short term in Iran, the situation will get somewhat worse in terms of economic indicators, so the life of average Iranian citizens is likely to be more stressed. Whether that has an impact on the Iranian government’s approach to negotiations, I’m doubtful of that, at least in the short term.

One last issue, how serious do you take the threat of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities?

We are not likely to see an Israeli strike against Iran’s facilities. I have no information other than my own intuition, but I just don’t see an attack in the cards.