After the Almaty nuclear talks

Mar 6, 2013

After the Almaty nuclear talks

Update from AIJAC

March 6, 2013
Number 03/13 #01

In the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran last week, it was agreed to hold two additional meetings – a technical meeting in March and full political talks in early April – after the P5+1 powers softened their demands of Iran and offered greater incentives for agreeing to an interim agreement to ease concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. This Update looks at what can be concluded from the session about the state of efforts to prevent Iran from illegally constructing nuclear weapons. 

First up is an editorial from the Washington Post, pouring cold water on the claims by some that the agreement to meet again and relatively restrained rhetoric by Iran indicate a breakthrough may be forthcoming. The newspaper notes that Iran has good reason to sound moderate, as they have just recieved concessions from the other side on the Fordow nuclear plant and on 20% enriched uranium, but have offered no softening of their own actual position in return. For this argument for informed and realistic expectations with respect to the nuclear talks, CLICK HERE. Israeli columnist Boaz Bismuth offers a similar critique of the Almaty talks, implying they appear designed to serve Iran’s interest in endless talk while they continue their nuclear efforts.

Next up is Washington Institute expert Michael Singh, who offers a more sophisticated discussion of what the talks currently look like based on negotiations theory – and specifically, the concept of Zones of Possible Agreement (ZOPAs), that is, the range of possible outcomes which both sides judge would leave them better off than not making a deal at all. He says most analysis of the talks to date has blamed mistrust, miscommunication, or other tactical problems, but he suggests that, given Teheran’s commitment to obtaining nuclear status, it is likely that no ZOPA currently exists. For this important and informed analysis of how a successful nuclear agreement could potentially be reached, CLICK HERE. Singh also had a piece outlining ways to up the pressure on Iran to negotiate seriously in late February. 

Finally, this Update features an interview about the Iranian nuclear situation with Olli Heinonen, the former deputy Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Heinonen, a Finn, paints a grim picture, suggesting that he believes that Iran may well have additional hidden nuclear facilities no one currently knows anything about, and that Iran may already be in a position to stage a nuclear breakout before the international community has time to act to stop it. For the rest of the insights of this intimate insider to the process of inspecting Iran’s nuclear facilities, CLICK HERE.

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Editorial: Is the U.S. kowtowing to Iran in nuclear talks?

Washington Post, March 1

THE MOST interesting public result of the latest talks with Iran on its nuclear program was the claim by Tehran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, that the new negotiating proposal from the United States and five partners was a possible “turning point” in what has been nearly a decade of fruitless diplomacy. Those cheery words, and the Iranian’s quick agreement to two follow-up meetings in the next five weeks, raised the question of whether the regime is positioning itself to strike a deal that would freeze the most dangerous elements of its nuclear work in exchange for an easing of the sanctions that are choking its economy.

We hope that is the case. Unfortunately, an equally plausible explanation for Mr. Jalili’s comment was that he was celebrating the fact that, in the eight months since Iran last agreed to meet with the international coalition, the offer to Tehran had grown more, rather than less, generous. “It was they who tried to get closer to our point of view,” he crowed, while adding that there remained “a long distance to the desirable point.”

U.S. officials denied that the terms offered Iran had grown softer as the regime has refused talks, stonewalled international inspectors and continued to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions by adding to its stockpile of enriched uranium. But it certainly looks that way. While the previous proposal of the five Security Council members and Germany, in Baghdad last May, called for Iran to shut down an underground nuclear plant known as Fordow and to ship its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium out of the country, the bid made in Almaty, Kazakhstan, scales back the Fordow shutdown to a suspension of operations and allows Iran to retain some of that 20 percent-enriched uranium.

In part, this shift can be seen as a response to a changing situation: Iran has been converting some of the medium-enriched stock into fuel for a research reactor, giving it a pretext to refuse a previous scheme under which uranium shipped out of the country would have been returned as fuel rods. But the coalition also appears to have offered a greater easing of sanctions — though officials said measures directed at Iran’s oil industry and financial system would remain intact.

If Iran altered its own, unacceptable proposals from previous rounds, there was no indication of it in the accounts of either side. That raises the possibility that the regime will simply pocket the easier terms and return to its stonewalling, with the expectation that another crumbling of the coalition position will ensue. In recent months, Tehran has avoided crossing Israel’s red line for military action by keeping its stockpile of ­medium-enriched uranium below the quantity needed for a bomb, but it has also begun installing a new generation of centrifuges, which could move it much closer to a breakout capacity. Maybe these zigs and zags, like Mr. Jalili’s declarations, are the prelude to a compromise. But history suggests they are the tactics of a regime convinced that it can outlast and outmaneuver the United States and its partners.

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Is Iran Out-Negotiating the Obama Administration?

Michael Singh

Foreign Policy, March 4, 2013

If Washington and its allies continue redrawing their redlines, they may eventually find themselves advocating military action against facilities that they previously declared legal and tolerable.

In the months before the latest round of P5+1 negotiations in Almaty, many analysts had been urging the United States to adopt what became known as a “more for more” approach. That is, offer Iran more relief from sanctions in exchange for more nuclear concessions by Tehran.

It is now evident that Washington instead adopted a “more for less” strategy. More relief from sanctions was indeed offered (according to reports — the U.S. terms have not been made available for public scrutiny), but in exchange for fewer, not more, concessions by Iran. In particular, the P5+1 has dropped its previous demand that Iran shutter its second enrichment facility at Fordow.

Even discounting the fact that the P5+1 appears to be negotiating with itself — Iran did not respond to the P5+1’s last offer and by all accounts made no formal response to the new offer — the group’s approach to negotiating is flawed. To understand why, one must consider the underlying dynamics of negotiations (for a longer version of this analysis, see the article I co-authored with Prof. Jim Sebenius in the latest issue of International Security).

Success in any negotiation depends on the existence of a “zone of possible agreement” (ZOPA) — in other words, a range of possible outcomes which both sides judge to be better than not making a deal at all. To use a simple example, if the seller of a house will accept a minimum of $200,000, and a prospective buyer will offer at most $250,000, the ZOPA is between those two figures — $200,000 to $250,000. The existence of a ZOPA does not guarantee that a deal will be made — there are still plenty of obstacles to reaching agreement — but it does mean that a deal is at least possible. If there is no ZOPA, then even the most skilled negotiator will be unable to broker a deal.

In the P5+1 negotiations, analysts have frequently sought to blame the long stalemate between the parties on mistrust, miscommunication, or other tactical matters. But in fact the underlying cause of the talks’ failure to produce an outcome has more likely been that no ZOPA was present — the least Iran would accept was a far more expansive nuclear program than the U.S. and its allies could tolerate, rendering the discussions futile.

Faced with the absence of a ZOPA, there are three ways to create one. First, by exerting pressure that imposes upon the targeted side an additional cost associated with failing to reach an agreement. To return to the home-buying example above, if the seller is moving and has another house under contract for which he requires the proceeds from the sale of his current home, the costs of failing to make a deal rise. This should cause him to reconsider his bottom line, and perhaps accept a less generous offer than he would have previously. While the stakes in a nuclear negotiation are much higher, the principle behind sanctions and other forms of pressure are the same — they raise the cost of failing to make a deal and incentivize the targeted side to reconsider its negotiating position.

The second way a ZOPA can be created is through incentives or deal sweeteners. Just as home-sellers might offer to help with financing or even to throw in a new car or a vacation to motivate prospective buyers, the P5+1 has offered Iran a range of incentives to motivate it to compromise, from assistance with civil nuclear power to science and technology cooperation. In principle, such incentives improve the value of an agreement and thus pry open a ZOPA that much more.

The P5+1 has tried both of these avenues for creating a ZOPA, though undoubtedly has recently focused far more on pressure than on incentives. These efforts, over the course of many years, have nevertheless foundered, likely because the Iranian regime values a potential nuclear weapons capability — and the prestige and security that it could bring — far more than even the oil exports and economic opportunity it has sacrificed to pursue it, and certainly more than Western incentives that Iranian officials have previously characterized as a pittance.

There is, however, a third way to open up a ZOPA in negotiations — to change one’s own bottom line. The temptation to do so will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in a negotiation, during which the impetus to make a deal for its own sake can override previous calculations of one’s interests. This appears to have been the P5+1’s approach in the Almaty round — faced with Iranian intransigence, the group decided to accept what it had previously declared unacceptable, namely the Fordow enrichment facility. The existence of this facility had been secret until it was revealed with much fanfare by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown in a 2009 press conference, at which they described Fordow as “a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime.”

Sometimes a negotiating party revises his bottom line because of pressures or incentives served up by the other side. Sometimes it is done unilaterally in pursuit of a deal or as a result of reconsidering whether one can really stomach the consequences of failing to reach a deal, which may now be the case with the P5+1.

There are good reasons, however, to avoid unilateral changes in one’s bottom line. First and foremost, there were presumably good reasons for staking out that bottom line in the first place. This is certainly true regarding the P5+1’s previous insistence that Fordow be dismantled. This facility, more than any other element of Iran’s nuclear program, offers Iran a clear path to a nuclear weapons capability, as it is buried deep underground and hardened against aerial attack. Allowing Iran to maintain centrifuge cascades there — even under IAEA seal — means that they retain the option to make a nuclear weapon.

Second, negotiations are about perceptions, and continual, incremental shifts in one’s bottom line can convey to the party across the table that your “true” bottom line has yet to be reached. In other words, Iran may be excused for thinking that if only they hold out longer against international pressure, the demand that they suspend enrichment at Fordow or that they cap enrichment at 20 percent may fall by the wayside just as the demands for shuttering Fordow, suspending enrichment altogether, and refraining from operating centrifuges have in the past.

Iran may thus misperceive the size and scope of a ZOPA, and may be willing to wait a long time to secure the best possible outcome, having taken eight years to extract the Fordow concession from Washington. In effect, this means undoing whatever progress was achieved through sanctions and incentives in opening a ZOPA by conveying a (hopefully) false impression of the P5+1’s own flexibility and bottom line.

Most ominously for the P5+1, it is possible that no ZOPA will ever be opened in the Iran nuclear negotiations because the Iranian regime cannot brook the idea of any compromise with the United States, enmity or “resistance” toward which was a guiding principle of the regime’s founding ideology. If this is the case, Tehran will simply pocket the concessions offered by the P5+1, and Fordow will be lent legitimacy just as the October 2009 “TRR deal” lent legitimacy to Iran’s low-level uranium enrichment activities. In this case, the U.S. and its allies may find themselves in the unenviable position of advocating a military strike on facilities that they have now declared no longer outside the bounds of international law, but tolerable under the right conditions.

Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute.

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How Iran Went Nuclear

Veteran weapons inspector Olli Heinonen on how the U.N.’s ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ has aided Tehran’s drive for the bomb—and why an unsettling secret may be lurking in the Iranian desert.


Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2012

Cambridge, Mass.

It has been more than three years since President Obama revealed the existence of the secret Iranian nuclear facility at Fordo—a uranium-enrichment plant buried deep inside a mountain and surrounded by missile silos and anti-aircraft batteries. Is the world due for another surprise soon?

If anyone has standing to speculate, it is Olli Heinonen, who says he first “got a whiff” of Fordo six years before Mr. Obama acknowledged it. In the fall of 2003, Mr. Heinonen was in his office at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna when a man appeared unannounced. The “walk-in”—whom Mr. Heinonen hasn’t previously discussed, and whose nationality he won’t disclose—claimed that Iran was replicating its existing uranium-enrichment facility in an underground site near the holy city of Qum. And so it was, as the IAEA and Western spy agencies later confirmed.

But that isn’t all the walk-in shared in 2003. Also under construction in Iran, he said, was a duplicate of the Arak heavy-water facility designed to produce plutonium. In other words, the walk-in said that Iran had at least two secret sites, and he was correct on the first. What about the second—is there a plutonium facility that remains secret today?

Mr. Heinonen can’t say as we sit in his office at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he has been a senior fellow since retiring as IAEA deputy director-general in 2010. Yet he offers a warning based on his 27 years of IAEA nuclear-inspection work in Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere:

“People talk a lot about how intelligence has penetrated all this,” he says of Iran’s weapons program, “but if you go back to the nuclear programs which have been revealed [elsewhere], they all came with a surprise. If there is no undeclared installation today . . . it will be the first time in 20 years that Iran doesn’t have one.”

A native of Finland, Mr. Heinonen speaks in upbeat, accented English, though his message is a grim one for a grim time. In February alone, North Korea conducted its third and most successful nuclear test; Iran announced plans to install advanced centrifuges that could speed its uranium enrichment by 200%; satellite photos published in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper suggested that some operations have begun at the Arak facility; multilateral talks with Iran mostly yielded plans for more talks (again); Iran rebuffed America’s offer of direct talks (again); and the Senate confirmed as defense secretary a man who couldn’t articulate whether the U.S. intends to prevent an Iranian bomb or live with it.

Mr. Heinonen is emphatic that the IAEA is in the prevention business, yet he also explains that Iran might be past the nuclear point of no return—and that years of IAEA missteps are partly to blame.

Even assuming that Iran’s regime has no secret facilities, it could go the North Korea route—defined by Mr. Heinonen as deciding “Enough is enough, to heck with this, we’ll build a nuclear weapon”—in “a month or two,” he says. The precise timing would depend on how (and how well) Iranian engineers go about enriching their uranium stocks to weapons-grade purity. But in any case, Mr. Heinonen notes, Iran’s breakout would likely outpace the ability of the “international community” to respond.

First, IAEA inspectors would have to detect the breakout. This could take up to two weeks because they visit Iran’s major uranium-enrichment facility about 24 times a year. (Roughly half of the visits are announced, meaning inspectors give the Iranians 10 days’ notice, and the rest are unannounced, meaning about two hours’ notice at any time of day.) Once inside, inspectors would quickly recognize from the enrichment machinery that Iran was dashing to a bomb, says Mr. Heinonen, but that would hardly be the end of the story.

The inspectors would formally alert the IAEA board, which takes “a few days’ time.” The board would meet and pass a resolution (which “needs a few days”) and then engage the United Nations Security Council (“also not an overnight decision”). “In reality,” he says, “one month is gone. Well, during that one month [Iran] may have achieved their goal, at least to have enough high-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. What next?” Iran would have become the world’s ninth confirmed nuclear state.

Mr. Heinonen’s implication is that an Iranian bomb is now simply a matter of Tehran’s will, not capability—despite two decades of international effort to prevent it. How did this happen?

Short of military force, there is only so much that outsiders can do to stop a determined regime. But in Iran’s case, Mr. Heinonen says, matters weren’t helped when the IAEA developed “Stockholm Syndrome,” akin to hostages who identify with their kidnappers. Though he praises the professionalism of the IAEA’s world-wide efforts on nuclear safety, Mr. Heinonen is mystified by parts of its record on Iran.

Mohamed ElBaradei’s tenure as the IAEA’s director-general from 1997-2009 wasn’t distinguished by its vigilance regarding Iran. He constantly downplayed suspicions (both from Western governments and within his own agency) about Iranian activity, and in 2008 he blessed almost all of Iran’s claims about its nuclear program as “consistent” with IAEA findings. He also wrote articles criticizing international nonproliferation policies for favoring nuclear haves over have-nots.

Mr. ElBaradei’s willingness to give rogue regimes the benefit of the doubt extended to Syria: After Israel bombed a site in the Syrian desert in 2007, he told the New Yorker magazine that it was “unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility.” In fact it was—supplied by North Korea, no less.

Of Mr. ElBaradei, Mr. Heinonen says, “We had our differences.” He praises his former boss for raising concern about the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program in 2004, but he notes that two events seemed to affect Mr. ElBaradei’s determination.

One was the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which Mr. ElBaradei “felt was unjust,” Mr. Heinonen says, and was launched on what Mr. ElBaradei regarded as “a pretext” that the Bush administration might also invoke to attack Iran. The other was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 2005 to Mr. ElBaradei and the IAEA. “It had an impact”—a softening one—”on the way we dealt with [Iran],” Mr. Heinonen says.

The main problem, however, was an entrenched practice of credulous diplomacy, says Mr. Heinonen. “If you ask whether things went wrong in 2003 and 2004, actually I would say it went wrong much earlier. It went wrong at the time of Hans Blix”—the IAEA chief at the time—”in 1993 and 1994.”

That is when IAEA officials conducted “transparency visits” in Iran, prompted by various concerns, including that China had secretly diverted two tons of uranium to the Islamic Republic. As Mr. Heinonen tells it, inspectors declared “Everything is OK, we saw nothing.” Actually, he notes, “there were two laboratories which were undeclared and became obvious during this visit.”

Yet the IAEA stayed mum and remained so for three years while Iran delayed putting the facilities under agency safeguards. “This was never mentioned in public,” says Mr. Heinonen, adding that as he rose through the agency he learned of other such nondisclosures by Vienna’s supposed enforcers of transparency.

“I cannot understand logically why you would behave like that,” he says, though he notes that the “Iranians are very good negotiators.”

To this day, Iranian negotiators manage to dampen IAEA criticism despite Tehran’s continued obstructionism. Inspectors have been blocked for years from the suspicious Parchin complex and from Arak, too, for the past 18 months. But by making promising public statements—like those this week announcing further negotiations in March and April—the Iranians “build a kind of hope, and the diplomats buy it,” Mr. Heinonen says.

Speaking of hope, the former inspector says that he still sees a chance for a U.S.-Iran grand bargain. In his view, the Iranian regime isn’t a “homogenous” revolutionary group bent on getting the bomb. “If you look,” some members of the Tehran establishment may be “pretty hardline” but “are more oriented on having business relations with the outside world.”

Such figures, he says, can exert a moderating influence on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Here Mr. Heinonen cites a 2003 episode in which former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani helped convince the supreme leader to reverse his public position against signing an additional-protocol agreement with the IAEA.

Then again, as Mr. Heinonen confirms, Iran cheated on that agreement and terminated its implementation after two years, so it doesn’t inspire much confidence. If a grand—and honest—bargain can’t be struck, and Iran is recognized as a de facto or overt nuclear power, then what? Will the Middle East see a nuclear-arms race as rival nations try to catch up?

“Yes, it might, but not overnight,” Mr. Heinonen says. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others would need five to 10 years to build a bomb “even in a crash course.”

Yet that is only if the countries are “starting from zero,” he notes. Saudi Arabia may already be on the move.

In 2011, the kingdom announced plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors by 2030. “That’s actually a funny number,” Mr. Heinonen says—just what a country would need to justify developing domestic fuel-cycle capabilities that could have both civilian and military uses. “If you want to maintain your own uranium enrichment, that’s the right number. . . . It’s a perfect match.” He adds: “Remember, there was no one military program which took place without civilian. It’s always under the civilian umbrella.”

For now, Mr. Heinonen is most concerned about Pakistan. The country is unstable, its nuclear arsenal huge, and “they are building these tactical nuclear weapons, which means that they need to move them around. . . . So how do you maintain the control?”

Any warehouse or convoy poses a proliferation risk. “Look at what happened with A.Q. Khan,” he says, referring to the godfather of the Pakistani bomb who sold nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya. “Either the military was entirely incompetent, or they knew what Khan was doing. . . . I think they all knew about it, and some of them got their own kickbacks.”

An afternoon with Mr. Heinonen provides a sobering counterpoint to happy talk from the Obama administration about “a world without nuclear weapons.” Mr. Heinonen, in his engineer’s uniform of tie and short-sleeve button-down shirt, maintains a certain equanimity about world affairs. Yet the parade of horribles rolls on.

Mr. Feith is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

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