Restarting nuclear talks with Iran: Old problems, some new hopes

By Ivan Oelrich | April 19, 2012

After a hiatus of 15 months, Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, called the P5+1, met in Istanbul to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Relations between Iran and the major powers have become so sour that, when the meetings ended, all sides viewed agreement to simply meet again next month in Baghdad as a major diplomatic triumph.

No one can know where the talks might lead. Skeptics claim that they are just the latest stalling and diversionary tactics by Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described the new talks as a “freebie” that will allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium without restraint. Most of the diplomats engaged in the talks seemed, however, guardedly optimistic and President Obama rejected the “freebie” charge. And Iran has not requested, nor has the P5+1 offered, any loosening of sanctions as a precondition for talks.

The optimists believe that Iran is coming back to the negotiating table not to stall, but because ever-tighter sanctions are finally starting to cause real pain. Iran’s major customers are even talking about a boycott of Iranian oil, an idea that would have been laughed at just a few years ago. Saudi Arabia has promised to make up any supply shortfalls, but taking Iran’s oil off the international market will inevitably impose some costs on importing countries. Perhaps precisely because the sanctions impose costs on the outside world, they may signal to Iran a new level of seriousness. And according to the US Energy Department, oil tariffs makes up half of the Iranian government’s revenue and 80 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, so a boycott is not a threat that Iran can ignore.

Reports from both Iranian and P5+1 diplomats indicate willingness on all sides to discuss anew Iran’s nuclear program, but don’t reveal much in the way of concrete proposals.

There is much that Iran could do to reassure the rest of the world. The highest priority is to stop any further enrichment to 20 percent uranium 235. Iran already has enough material to top up the research reactor in Tehran. The existing 20 percent material should be converted quickly into fuel elements. Iran claims it can do this, but other countries — France, Russia, or the United States — could do the job faster and cheaper. Similarly, Iran could limit its inventory of all enriched uranium, perhaps by exporting it to Russia as it is produced, where it would be incorporated into fuel elements destined for the power reactor at Bushehr. Iran could also convert its enriched uranium from hexafluoride form, which easily allows further enrichment, to the oxide form used in reactors, which is impossible to enrich further without additional chemical conversion.

The sharpest area of disagreement will relate to charges that Iran has engaged in nuclear weapons design work. Here, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have fundamental differences over both jurisdiction and the facts. Iran claims it must declare its nuclear facilities and open those to inspection — and, with that, its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty requirements are met. The IAEA argues that a nation has a certain responsibility to proactively demonstrate to the world that a nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and, moreover, it describes its charges of Iranian weapons research as broad and consistent. Iran dismisses the charges as fabrications reflecting international bias and hostility, arguing that, in any case, it can never, even in theory, prove it is not conducting research on weapons, so any investigation will inevitably turn into a never-ending witch hunt.

While there is no single smoking gun that proves beyond doubt that Iran has had an active weapons research program, a long list of highly incriminating evidence suggests that Iran has explored weapons technology in the past. Even so, it is unrealistic at this point to expect Iran to admit publicly that it has been lying all this time. The most the world can hope for is that Iran will quietly open its books and provide real, but unpublicized, assurances that any weapons research program is history. And if the enrichment program can be addressed, possible weapons research becomes more of a theoretical concern in any case.

What the P5+1 will bring to the table has been almost completely ignored. The standoff is presented as Iran’s being in the wrong and having to comply with international demands to have sanctions lifted. But the big powers also have to offer Iran some sort of positive incentives, if for no other reason than to let Iranian negotiators meet political demands back home.  Specifically, the P5+1 should sketch out how Iran could meet its claimed nuclear energy needs within new international arrangements. The P5+1 must quickly determine whether Iran is stalling for time. If not and the P5+1 therefore seems to have the upper hand because of sanctions, then it can afford to be a bit magnanimous, tactfully ignoring why Iran may be at the table at Baghdad and allowing some face-saving compromises. There seems to be a developing consensus that limited Iranian uranium enrichment will be tolerated, within some tighter overall control regime. One approach that could benefit all sides is to have the P5+1 essentially call Iran’s bluff, take at face value Iran’s official claims that its program is peaceful, and then act to integrate the program into the global nuclear economy. This would undercut Iran’s claims of a need for nuclear autonomy, make diversion more difficult, and logically keep some processing steps outside the country.

For example, Iran’s ever-growing cache of 20 percent enriched uranium 235 could put Iran just months, perhaps even weeks, away from having a bomb’s-worth of highly enriched uranium. In June 2009, Iran requested new 20 percent fuel for its research reactor in Tehran. The United States attempted to tie the medical isotope reactor refueling to Iran’s enrichment program. This approach backfired when the deal fell through, and Iran started its own 20 percent enrichment. It would have been better to supply Iran with the fuel elements immediately, nipping in the bud any justification Iran might present for its own higher enrichment. Russian deals for fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power reactor, in which Russia delivers complete fuel assemblies and recovers them as they are used, could serve as a model.

Worries about Iran’s nuclear program go back a half century to the reign of the Shah. And Iran is simply the most glaring case of the inevitable ambiguity created by the inherent potential for both civil and military uses of nuclear technology. As long as nuclear power is with us, the proliferation threat can only be managed, not solved, but the recent meeting in Istanbul raises some hopes that progress is within sight, at least in the case of Iran.

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