Much of the coverage of the P5+1 or E3+3 talks* with Iran this week has focused on one thing or another, like the blind men and the elephant. I’m going to try to put some of those details into a bigger picture.
There was some disappointment that no ”œgrand bargain” was arrived at, but, given the poor track record for talks on Iran’s nuclear program, none should have been expected. The best that could be expected was an agreement to continue the talks and a willingness on both sides to consider the other’s proposals. That seems to be the outcome, although Laura Rozen and Barbara Slavin indicate that it almost wasn’t.
Iranian representatives have expressed disappointment that a complete removal of sanctions wasn’t on the table. It’s not clear if this is a negotiating ploy or a genuine reaction. It has been reinforced, however, by commentators with experience on the Iranian side of negotiations, so it may be genuine. If so, it is an indication of Iran’s isolation and unrealistic expectations.
Expectations can be unrealistic on the other side, too, and there have been criticisms that the P5+1 have been too insistent on Iran’s suspending enrichment entirely, although that does not seem to be the case in the Istanbul and Baghdad negotiations.
The Back Story
The central issue of the talks is Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has built two facilities for enriching uranium, at Natanz and Fordo (or Fordow, near Qom), and it is building a heavy-water reactor and support facilities at Arak. It has a facility that prepares the uranium hexafluoride for enrichment at Isfahan. Iran has admitted that it has done experiments related to nuclear weapons production before 2003, but says it is not doing any now, and the 2007 and 2011 American intelligence estimates agree with that. Still, material whose sources are officially anonymous but most probably stem from Israel seems to indicate that more recent experiments may have been done, particularly at the Parchin military base. The power reactor at Bushehr is not of concern for a possible weapons program.
There have been five United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program. They have resulted from Iran’s concealment of the Natanz and Fordo facilities and difficulties that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has encountered in dealing with Iran on inspections. They require Iran to suspend (not end, but suspend until the various issues are cleared up) its uranium enrichment, and they are the basis for the P5+1 talks. They are also the basis for sanctions on Iran. The United States was very active in passing these resolutions, and Iran has felt that they are punitive and single Iran out unfairly. A more detailed history of the situation can be found here (pdf).
The meeting in Istanbul in April established that there was some basis for talks and scheduled the next meeting for this past week in Baghdad. Trust has been so low, because there have been so many false starts in the past, with both sides dropping the ball, that the process had to start from very low expectations.
On the Table
Last week, the P5+1 put an offer on the table:
Iran stops enriching uranium to 19.75%, often rounded up to 20% in news reports, and eventually closes down the enrichment plant at Fordo. (The difference could be significant, since the latter is considered high-enriched or bomb grade and the former is not. However, I will continue to refer to 20% enrichment as what Iran is doing.)
The P5+1 supply fabricated fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor(TRR), along with medical isotopes, the justification for operating the TRR, and safety upgrades. Additionally, plans will be made to replace the TRR with a reactor that runs on low-enriched (3.5%) fuel.
Safety assistance will be made available for the Bushehr reactor.
Trade in replacement parts for civilian airliners will resume.
Iran also put an offer forward. Information is less available on Iran’s offer, but it is said to contain five points, only one connected with the nuclear issues, that Iran’s right to enrich uranium would be recognized. The other four points had to do with events in Syria and other regional issues.
It is disappointing that the two proposals weren’t closer together, but Catherine Ashton, the convenor of the talks and EU Foreign Minister, says that there is common ground. The fact that last week’s talks were difficult and substantive but nonetheless continued is positive relative to previous talks.
What the Two Sides Say
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili called the talks ”œthorough but unfinished.” He said Iran was not prepared to make any concessions unless the six nations accept ”œthe undeniable right of the Iranian nation .”‰.”‰. to enrich uranium.” U.S. officials said that is not a concession they are prepared to grant.
Jalili also made it clear that Iran would not countenance a deal that did not alleviate the sanctions that have been taking an increasingly devastating toll on the country’s economy. (Washington Post)
”œThere is progress, there is an atmosphere of optimism after the Western powers responded to our requests,” Taleb Mahdi, a member of Iran’s delegation, said in an interview.
But, later in the same article,
”œThere’s been no progress in this round of talks,” Taleb Mahdi, a member of the Iranian delegation, said … The P5+1 offer calls on Iran to end all uranium enrichment, Mahdi said.
Fereidoun Abbasi, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency as saying that Iran will continue the higher enrichment level for a medical research reactor that produces isotopes for treatment of about 1 million cancer patients in Iran.
“There is no reason for us to back down on 20 percent-level enrichment, because we produce only as much 20 percent material as we need,” Abbasi said. “Not more, not less.”
He also said Iran has not yet been convinced to allow the U.N. nuclear agency access to a military complex to probe suspicions that in 2003, Tehran secretly tested explosives needed to set off a nuclear bomb. The suspected blasts would have taken place inside a pressure chamber.
Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team who is now at Princeton University, has frequently been quoted, including by David Ignatius, on what he feels would be an acceptable deal. It is not clear whether he is speaking for the Iranian government; most likely not.
”œI’m afraid the P5+1, they ask too much from Iran. They ask Iran to give diamonds in return for peanuts.”
The diamond in question, he said, is Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. ”œThe issue is political, not technical. For the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) Iran would have no problem to cooperate to all questions. But…asking Iran to stop twenty percent (uranium enrichment), to implement additional protocols, to give access beyond additional protocols ”“ this is practically the diamonds the P5 Plus 1 wants.”
He added, ”œAnd if they are going to propose Iran spare parts for airplanes (in exchange), these would be the peanuts.” (Christiane Amanpour’s blog)
Jay Carney, President Obama’s press spokesman, in a press gaggle on May 24:
There have been concrete ideas exchanged in these negotiations. And the P5-plus-1 are unified in calling for Iran to demonstrate the peaceful intent of its nuclear program and to fully comply with their international obligations…. What we’re looking for is progress. We’re looking for seriousness on the part of the Iranians in terms of addressing the concerns of the international community. And thus far, those expectations have been met…. even as we have positive steps, the President’s position is that we will judge Iran by its actions, not by its words or simply by the fact that it’s holding meetings.
In Baghdad, the Iranians, for the first time, said, ”œWe are ready to discuss with you the proposals put on the table. This has never happened before. In years before, there has been real discussion, but not about the nuclear issue.”
”œFor me, it’s important that the talks be detailed and substantive,” she said.
The diplomat said there was a change in the seriousness of the Iranians’ approach to the talks since a February letter from lead Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to Ashton accepting new nuclear talks. The concise letter ”” only few paragraphs long ”” directly mentions willingness to focus talks on the nuclear issue and avoided past versions’ lengthy diatribes against perceived international double standards. The senior European diplomat, who has worked on Iran for almost the past decade, called it a ”œbreakthrough.”
”œIt is important they are discussing the issues,” the diplomat said. ”œThere is common ground. But they made linkages between recognition of their right to enrich and [international requests on aspects of their program].”
”œMaximum pressure is not yet being felt in Iran.” European Union sanctions on Iranian oil and US sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, both due to be fully implemented in July, ”œincrease leverage on the negotiation as it proceeds forward,” the offical said.
”œThe Iranians don’t like it,” the diplomat continued. “They hope and would rather we not put additional sanctions on. Indeed they are not at all pleased that soon after Istanbul, the president [Barack Obama] signed a new executive order [sanctioning Iran for supplying technical assistance to Syria to repress dissidents]. We heard about that.”
”œWe have the dual-track policy, and we believe that policy works and is effective,” the official said. ”œIt will take some time for all of that to play out. We will do whatever we need to do to make that effective.”
What’s the Bottom Line?
”œAll negotiations begin with each side putting on the table its most extreme demands,” said Ambassador Thomas Pickering in an interview with Christiane Amanpour, and that seems to have been the case this past week. Now lower-level personnel will look in detail at the proposals and develop counterproposals and potential compromises.
It’s hard to interpret the comments, both positive and negative. The essential discussion took place behind closed doors. Public statements may be intended for domestic audiences or for negotiating purposes. They may also be genuine. The domestic purposes could include positioning the speaker relative to internal power plays, preparing the public for a change from previous policies, or playing to electoral audiences. Negotiating purposes could be to bluff the other side or to move the talks to a more congenial basis; that could include both in a good-cop/bad-cop approach.
Although the full texts of the proposals are not available, here are a few observations:
The P5+1 proposal couples an end to 20% enrichment to provision of fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, the purpose for which the Iranians say they are enriching to that relatively high level. This high level is of concern to the P5+1 because it would be relatively easy to enrich the 20% uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90% and more.
There has been a significant international effort, led by the United States and Russia, to refit research reactors like the TRR to use low-enriched uranium. Refitting the TRR in this way would be consistent with actions of many other countries to make these reactors more proliferation-resistant. Part of the P5+1 offer is to do this.
It appears from the latest IAEA report (pdf) that Iran is using all its 20% enriched uranium to fabricate fuel plates for the TRR. Thus, the net result of ending 20% enrichment and accepting fuel plate fabrication elsewhere would be little change from the present situation. Iran now has the capability of fuel plate fabrication in case the international supply ends. Further, the fuel would be even easier to fabricate if the TRR were redesigned or a new reactor supplied to run on 3.5% enriched uranium.
The big change, if these steps were taken, would be development of confidence by both sides that the other will follow through on their promises. This is the real issue being addressed and necessary for further, bigger steps.
Airplane parts have been one of the items for which trade has been restricted with Iran by sanctions. This would represent a loosening of sanctions, although a much smaller loosening than, say, delay of the sanctions on oil scheduled for July 1.
Iran’s two sticking points seem to be a desire to delay and remove sanctions, and that their right to enrichment be recognized. The first is a major step and would seem to require an equivalent major step on their side, say a suspension of all enrichment for a stated period of time or until some milestone was reached. The Iranians seem to be arguing that any actions to modify their nuclear program must be reciprocated by removal of all sanctions, or even preceded by removal of sanctions. This is the publicly stated position; whether they are willing to negotiate remains to be seen.
The Iranian view has been that their participation in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty assures them the right to enrichment via Article IV of that document. But the P5+1 and the UN Security Council resolutions make that right conditional on compliance with other provisions of the treaty. Iran has concealed actions in the past that have violated its obligations under the NPT.
Previously, the P5+1 made Iran’s suspending all enrichment a precondition for talks or an early requirement in the negotiations. That requirement has not been reported in this round of negotiations. In fact, the ending of 20% enrichment seems to be the only provision being put forth by the P5+1. This is much less than the demand that all enrichment be suspended. It could be seen as a first step toward a requirement for ending all enrichment, which is probably part of Iran’s concern. Alternatively, it could be seen as a step towards Iran’s indicating to the world that it can be responsible in its nuclear activities.
A Needle To Be Threaded?
It seems to me that the most important statements to come out of the two meetings have been covered hardly at all in the press. From Ashton’s official statement from the Istanbul meeting:
We have agreed that the NPT forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement, to ensure all the obligations under the NPT are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
And it’s been so little quoted that I don’t have a link, but there was a statement last week to the effect that the IAEA talks between Director General Yukiya Amano and the Iranians were completely separate and decoupled from the P5+1 negotiations.
It is the NPT that assures Iran the right to enrich, as long as Iran meets its other provisions. Whether Iran is meeting those obligations is the subject of the UNSC resolutions and the discussions with the IAEA. In the past, the resolutions have been put first (the requirement that Iran suspend enrichment), with a threat of regime change underlying them, even an explicit threat from some quarters of the P5+1. That requirement and threat have been absent from the latest two meetings. This opens some space for discussion of Iran’s right to enrich vis-Ã -vis its intentions for the nuclear program, perhaps even actions to support the Supreme Leader’s statements against nuclear weapons.
The result of recent IAEA negotiations carried out by Director General Amano has not yet been made public. The subject was the Parchin facility, which is claimed to have been the site of nuclear-weapons-related testing. Testing of polonium-beryllium neutron initiators, implosion assemblies, or hydrodynamic testing have been mentioned as possitilities. Decoupling these negotiations from the P5+1 negotiations removes a potential point of breakdown for the P5+1 negotiations. Allowing the IAEA access to Parchin has been a highly sensitive issue for the Iranians and a source of much external controversy.
These two simplifications open a space for discussing Iran’s right to enrichment under the proper safeguards. They may be the most important outcomes of the negotiations so far.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner, where there is also a fairly wonky article on Iran’s Parchin containment vessel.
* This group consists of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. P5+1 refers to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. E3+3 refers to the three members of the EU plus the other three.