- 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.
Paul Kerr, a nonproliferation expert for the Arms Control Association in Washington, says any deal worked out by Western countries, Russia, and China, with Iran would probably have to include a pledge by the United States not to seek regime change in Iran in exchange for Iran’s agreement on limiting its nuclear program.
Kerr says Iran has been reluctant to cooperate with the UN Security Council in part due to fears that, regardless of what Iran does on the nuclear question, Washington will use the Council as a vehicle to pursue regime change in Tehran.
However, he says Iran is likely to try to insist on keeping its laboratory research in nuclear enrichment, and that might make it impossible for a deal to be achieved. "Iran is willing to reach some sort of agreement on its nuclear program," Kerr says. "Now the Iranians will want to keep at least a research and development centrifuge facility. That’s what they’ve indicated publicly. They seem to be willing to deal on other parts of the program, though, for example, to accept a cap on the degree to which its uranium is enriched."
The five U.N. Security Council members with vetoes—the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany—have met in London to discuss a series of sticks and carrots to persuade the Iranians to stop their nuclear program. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she’s still optimistic something can be worked out. What do you think they’ll end up with?
The crux of the matter seems to be, at least partly, the United States’ willingness to demonstrate somehow that it’s willing to say yes to any Iranian proposal to resolve the nuclear issue. From what I understand, from public statements that they’ve made and a couple of conversations I’ve had with Iranian diplomats, Iran is willing to reach some sort of agreement on its nuclear program. Now, the Iranians will want to keep at least a research and development centrifuge facility. That’s what they’ve indicated publicly. They seem to be willing to deal on other parts of the program, though, for example to accept a cap on the degree to which its uranium is enriched. Also the Iranians have indicated they’re willing to deal on how many centrifuges would be in a research development facility.
For our readers who are not that knowledgeable about these kinds of things, talk about "the degree of enrichment" first.
Enriched uranium can be used to power nuclear reactors. It can also be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Uranium that’s used to power nuclear reactors typically enriching to about 3 to 5 percent.
And that’s what their research has so far produced, right?
A little under 5 percent, yes. That’s what they say. And uranium that’s used in nuclear weapons typically contains about 90 percent uranium-235. The Iranians have said that they will only produce uranium enriched to about 5 percent or so in their facility.
Are the Iranians willing to allow their enrichment beyond the laboratory to take place outside of Iran?
The Iranians have said they are interested in obtaining enriched uranium from sources outside of Iran. They’ve been negotiating, for example, with the Russians on a scheme where the Russians would enrich Iranian-produced uranium-hexafluoride, the feedstock for centrifuges. Under that proposal the Russians would take that feedstock and enrich it and then send it back to Iran. Iran would be a part-owner of the Russian plant. Now, Iran has also expressed interest in some other multilateral schemes. For example, they have said that Iran would be interested in what they call a regional consortium, which would enrich uranium and which would be a multilaterally owned and operated facility in the region.
I strongly suspect that Iran would want that facility to be located in Iran, but they’ve not explicitly said so. The important thing though is to know that Iran acknowledges that it will have to import enriched uranium in order to operate their nuclear reactors. Iran simply doesn’t have enough indigenous uranium, as far as we know. They’re interested in importing nuclear fuel because they need to import it. The Iranians want to have their own ability to produce enriched uranium as really a hedge against the disruption of supplies from abroad. So, in case those supplies get interrupted for whatever reason, and a certain country, say, refused to deliver them nuclear fuel, Iran could produce its own while it negotiates some other arrangement.
So is this what Western countries and Russia and China are discussing?
There are some details that have been made public, although I’ve not seen a draft proposal yet. One of the ideas that has been floated both by the Russians and the Europeans is to provide some sort of a guaranteed fuel supply to Iran in exchange for Iran giving up its enrichment program. The idea is to show Iran that it doesn’t have to worry about losing its own fuel because they can get it from abroad. The Russians have made their proposal, which the Europeans have supported. The Europeans have also in the past proposed some sort of a scheme to provide fuel to Iran, although the Iranians said that proposal was too vague, that it didn’t provide sufficient confidence that Iran would indeed continue to receive the fuel as it needed it.
So that’s the "carrot"?
That’s one of them, yes.
Now there have been various reports, including a front-page story in the Washington Post on Wednesday, saying that Iran is interested in having a face-to-face meeting with the United States to discuss the nuclear issue. And this follows up, of course, this rather unusual letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, which the United States has not answered as far as I know. Do you think there is a serious proposal to talk about nuclear matters?
I think the Iranians are serious about talking to the United States. I think there’s some other evidence for that. Iran has said that they were willing to talk to the United States, for example, about the situation in Iraq. Iran has also said, publicly, more than once, that they would be willing to discuss the nuclear issue with the United States under certain conditions. They typically don’t specify what those conditions are, but they imply that they want to know that the United States is serious about reaching a deal on the nuclear question.
Do they want more than a nuclear question resolved? Do they want the Persian Gulf area discussed?
As you know, it’s been widely reported that Iran offered in spring 2003 to discuss a wide variety of issues with the United States, including support for terrorist organizations and the nuclear question. Interestingly, Iran also offered in January 2005 to discuss a wide variety of issues with the three European countries they were negotiating with. And that proposal involved issues of Persian Gulf security and terrorism and guarantees that Iran wouldn’t be attacked or that the regime wouldn’t be undermined in some other way. So Iran certainly has expressed interest in the past in discussing these issues, and certainly the discussion about Iraq would encompass area security issues by their very nature. Really what Iran, I think, wants though, is to resolve a whole host of these sort of issues with the United States, but if they’re going to talk with the United States, they want to know that the United States is serious about reaching a deal.
Iranian officials have said that they’re willing to talk about the problems surrounding the nuclear program, if that’s what the issue really is, but if the United States is just bent on pressuring Iran on a whole host of other issues without seriously negotiating, then I think the Iranians are not interested.
The White House indicated yesterday they weren’t interested in direct talks until Iran agreed to stop its enrichment, right?
Yes, the reports I saw I think said "suspended," I think.
So that’s not very likely, is it?
That’s what the Security Council had said. The European countries say "well we’ll be negotiating with the Iranians, but Iran has to suspend their program." That was the previous condition for engaging in talks with the Europeans. So, I mean, the White House statement to some extent sounds like a bit of a reiteration of the Security Council position. But Iran has said that it’s not interested in suspending its program.
If you were going to draft the basic outline of an agreement that could be reached, what would it have to include?
Any agreement would have to include a U.S. guarantee that, in the event that
Iran is able to negotiate a satisfactory agreement regarding its nuclear
program, Washington will not attack Iran or try to overthrow its
government. Iran has been reluctant to cooperate with the UN Security
Council partly because Tehran fears that, regardless of what Iran does on
the nuclear question, Washington will use the Council as a vehicle to pursue regime change in Tehran.
Any agreement should also describe, as clearly as possible, the steps that
Iran must take to satisfy international concerns about its nuclear program.
The United States should state clearly that, if Iran complies with these
steps, Washington will definitely support whatever positive incentives are
included in the agreement.
Clearly defining the parameters of Iran’s commitments will be important
because the fear that the United States is pursuing a regime-change agenda
has also contributed to Iran’s reluctance to undertake commitments that go
beyond its legal requirements under the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and the IAEA safeguards agreement. Tehran is wary of participating in a potentially open-ended process that could lead to the same sort of Security Council action (resolutions, inspections, sanctions, military actions, etc.) that was taken against Iraq.
Iran also has a core demand that it be able to retain a research and development centrifuge facility. That really would be the key difference between what the Europeans and the United States want, and what Iran wants. But in other areas there may be some more common ground. Iran has at various times indicated that it’s willing to reach other arrangements that will provide confidence that their centrifuge facility is for peaceful purposes.
For example, Iran has, as I said before, indicated that it will limit the size of that facility; I’ve heard a number of centrifuges as low as 164. They’ve also indicated, of course, a desire for what they call industrial-scale enrichment, and it’s unclear as to exactly what they mean by that, but certainly then it is talking about considerably more centrifuges. But they say that they’re willing to suspend initiation of that for a period of at least a few years.
Iran has also said that they will allow for an increased presence of IAEA inspectors in Iran to provide confidence that their facilities are all being used for peaceful purposes. So, if the United States and Europeans were to agree to allow Iran to have a power facility, they would certainly insist on other measures to provide confidence that that facility is being used for peaceful purposes. And so I think there seems to be some room for negotiating on those other sorts of measures. I think Iran also in some way would want an assurance that if it agrees to certain compromises on its nuclear program that it will receive certain benefits for doing so.
Meaning economic benefits?
Yes, the Iranians want further economic engagement with the Europeans, and the West in general; they have also expressed interest in receiving assistance on things like counter narcotics, on issues such as on terrorism, because they would like both the United States and the Europeans to put more pressure on anti-Iranian terrorist organizations made up of Iranian émigrés.
Is it possible that the Western countries could agree among themselves to any plan that would allow Iran to keep its laboratory research program going?
That’s a very interesting question. The short answer is I don’t know. The longer answer is that there have been proposals from various nongovernmental organizations that would allow for that. There also have been press reports that some Western governments, most recently Germany, advocate allowing Iran to retain a power facility. So we just don’t know. And certainly if the Western governments were considering that, it’s understandable they might keep those cards close to their chest for negotiating purposes. So I think there are some areas of possible agreement here, but really the crux of the matter is the retention of that power facility and the question of whether Iran will suspend its research facility.