The Iran Nuclear Talks Impasse

This week’s latest round of Iran talks seems to have done little to reconcile the two sides on the country’s nuclear position, says CFR’s Michael A. Levi.

July 05, 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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This week marks a fourth round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. CFR’s Michael Levi, an expert on nuclear security issues, says it will be difficult for the two sides to reconcile their positions. "I don’t see any signs of success at this week’s meeting or of progress going forward," he says. "Perhaps the best one can say is that there wasn’t a complete meltdown." Levi says that real progress would "be a clear Iranian willingness to negotiate on its entire program (not just Fordow) and a clear P5+1 willingness to contemplate some residual enrichment activities."

Can you briefly outline the issues--what each side is asking for, and their importance?

The best way to think about both sides’ bottom lines is this: Iran wants to create at least the option of building a nuclear bomb without risk of military retaliation. The P5+1 wants to remove that possibility. Those are difficult positions to reconcile.

The P5+1 continue to seek substantial limits on Iranian nuclear activities. They clearly want Iran to stop enrichment at Fordow, the hardened facility that was revealed in 2009, and to ship the moderately enriched uranium that’s been produced there out of the country. They also insist that Iran suspend enrichment more broadly, though the exact terms they want are unclear, and that Iran come clean about the military dimensions of its past (and possibly present) activities.

Iran, meanwhile, has been vague about the potential for movement on the Fordow and medium enriched uranium fronts, and has made clear that it does not foresee limits on its other enrichment activities. It has made noises about some cooperation on the military issues, but there has been no substantive progress thus far. In exchange for any meaningful movement on any of the issues under discussion, Iran is looking for all the current and pending sanctions to be waived.

Which country has the most leverage in this negotiation process and what can we expect from them?

Iran probably has the most leverage right now. It’s the one building out its nuclear infrastructure--barring military action, it’s the only one that can start or stop that dynamic. That makes it difficult to come to a resolution that the P5+1 will be satisfied with. Iran also has the benefit of being able to play six different countries against each other. So far, they’ve largely held together, but that’s never entirely solid.

The P5+1 are gaining more leverage as sanctions mount--when you add new sanctions, you gain a new bargaining chip: you can remove them. But a stalemate with lots of sanctions and an Iranian nuclear bomb is a loss for the P5+1.

The EU began oil sanctions this week. What kind of impact will that have on negotiations going forward?

The new sanctions can only help the P5+1. There is clear evidence that sanctions already implemented in recent months have reduced the volumes of oil that Iran can sell and the price Iran gets for the oil that it’s able to successfully market. Falling world oil prices have also cut deeply into Iran’s bottom line. But we don’t know exactly how much pressure Iranian leaders are feeling. And sanctions alone are highly unlikely to prompt Iran to submit to all of the P5+1’s demands. Sanctions work best when there’s a plausible exit route, and it’s unclear if anything like that has been identified by the parties.

Was this week’s meeting successful in any way? Are there signs of progress or what might progress look like going forward?

I don’t see any signs of success at this week’s meeting or of progress going forward. Perhaps the best one can say is that there wasn’t a complete meltdown. That’s to be expected: both sides have an interest in prolonging the talks if they believe that they’ll forestall an Israeli military strike (and if, in the case of the P5+1, they believe that such a strike would be unwise at the present time). I have a difficult time seeing progress come incrementally, at least in the sense of a partial deal. Progress to me would be a clear Iranian willingness to negotiate on its entire program (not just Fordow) and a clear P5+1 willingness to contemplate some residual enrichment activities. Much more would need to come afterwards, but that would at least shift the definition of what’s being discussed.

The Iranians are also in negotiations directly with the IAEA. Can we expect any progress there, and will it help with the P5+1 talks?

We might see some progress in the IAEA negotiations, which concern access to potential military sites, particularly since those sites seem to have been extensively cleaned by the Iranians. If they can offer something to the P5+1 through this, without compromising their program, that might be a wise move. It won’t, however, help much if at all with the P5+1 talks--after all, the P5+1 already believe that the Iranian program has at least latent military intent; they aren’t waiting for inspections to establish that.

Do you have any policy recommendations for a way forward beyond more sanctions?

More sanctions are great at creating pressure--but the P5+1, and the United States in particular, need to lay a tough but plausible alternative resolution on the table. Richard Haass and I described one such option in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Iran would end its production of medium enriched uranium, ship its existing stocks out of the country, and the two sides would negotiate limits to other Iranian enrichment activities, including technology development. Tough new inspections on a continuous basis (in many cases through remote monitoring rather than boots on the ground) would also be necessary, with a tradeoff between stricter physical limits and more intrusive inspections. The other side of the offer from the P5+1 would be an end to the nuclear-related sanctions. This, to me, would be the best approach--I have no idea whether it would resolve the impasse, but it or something like it needs to be tried. Right now, though, the prospects look bleak.