April 17, 2011
Number 04/12 #03
This Update deals with the “P5+1” talks with Iran that occurred on Saturday – with reports suggesting little diplomatic progress accomplished beyond agreement to another meeting in five weeks in Baghdad. On a separate issue, it also contains a look a the significance of the planned meeting tonight between Israeli PM Netanyahu and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad to present a letter outlining the Palestinian position.
First up is American analyst and former senior official Elliot Abrams, who notes that no concrete proposals or confidence-building measures appear to have come out of this meeting, according to reports. Abrams is dismissive of claims that the talks were “constructive”, noting that some of the arguments for this – such as the comment by one diplomat that the Iranians must be serious because “I don’t think they would come” otherwise, or claims that at least the meeting did not end in failure – amount to pretty serious over-egging to put a positive spin on things. He also notes the fact that the US representative had to ask for a private bilateral meeting with the Iranians, which sends the unfortunate message that the Americans are the suitors, eager for a deal, more than the Iranians. For the rest of his comments, CLICK HERE. Sadly, since publication of Abrams article, it has been confirmed that in fact the Iranians rejected the request for a bilateral meeting with the US delegate – making the reasons for pessimism even stronger. Other analysts have also noted that willingness to accept such bilateral meetings are an important sign of Iranian seriousness.
Next up, British analyst Simon Henderson and former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official CLICK HERE. Iran has anyway reportedly already said no to any proposal to halt its controversial further enrichment to 20%, much less restrict its 3.5% enrichment.
Finally, veteran Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon looks at tonight’s Fayyad-Netanyahu meeting to present the Palestinian letter. He argues the whole affair, unfortunately, appears to be no more than theatre, with little diplomatic potential, given that the Palestinian letter appears to be little more than a Palestinian ultimatum demanding yet again that Israel meet a series of pre-conditions for talks to resume which are the same ones the Palestinians have been putting forward for most of the past three years. Keinon predicts that Netanyahu will respond with a letter intended mainly to score PR points as well. For Keinon’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE. One purported draft text of the Palestinian letter is here – with analysis here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Israeli PM Netanyahu has called the decision to suspend the talks for five weeks a “freebie” for Iran. US President Obama responded by stressing the US had not given anything away to Iran and was determined to keep the pressure one.
- Israeli diplomatic expert on Iran Uri Lubrani calls the Istanbul talks an “Iranian trick.”
- A useful primer on the Western goals for the talks from former Israeli UN Ambassador Dore Gold, noting, among other things, that Ayatollah Khamenei’s much-cited Fatwa against nuclear weapons is, to a considerable extent, a myth.
- Israeli academic Ira Sharkansky looks at the role in the current drama of the woman leading the optimistic assessment of the Istanbul talks – EU Foreign Minister Baroness Catherine Ashton.
- Two pieces calling attention to other aspects of the Iranian crisis frequently being forgotten – the plight of Iran’s disenfranshised democrats, and Iran’s support for international terrorism.
A look at how Western and Chinese countries have contributed to Iran’s development of an “electronic curtain” which Iran uses to prevent internet access to its citizens and repress dissent.
- Two interesting comments on the claim that Western intelligence will be able to tell when and if Iran is going nuclear – from Danielle Pletka and Ronen Bergman.
- Khaled Abu Toameh on the claim settlements are a major obstacle to peace.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
by Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations, April 14, 2012
Happy talk is one of the great concerns we should all have about the talks with Iran in Istanbul, which just concluded with an agreement to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad.
What happened in Istanbul? Judging from the account in the New York Times, not much. The EU’s Lady Ashton says the talks were “useful and constructive,” but there is no real reason to believe this. The Times continues:
The decision to meet again appeared to reflect what European and American officials saw as a serious commitment from Iran to negotiate. However the initial statements from the delegates after the talks ended did not suggest that any concrete proposals or confidence-building measures had been made or agreed to.
Right. In fact, the problem is made even more obvious in this comment:
“I don’t think they would come if they weren’t serious,” one Western diplomat said.
Really? Looking back on all the negotiations with the North Koreans, including those of the Obama Administration (and those led in the Clinton Administration by Under Secretary of State Sherman, who also led the U.S. delegation in Istanbul), would we judge that the North Koreans “wouldn’t have come if they weren’t serious?”
Serious about what, one might ask? About delaying a possible Israeli military strike, or about negotiating an end to their own nuclear program? The fact that there appear to have been no concrete proposals discussed, yet the next meeting is delayed now for five weeks, suggests skepticism about Iranian “seriousness.”
The late May meeting will be in Baghdad, because that is where Iran wants it to take place. What will happen there? The Times notes that
There will be enormous pressure on the parties for the Baghdad meeting, since very little of substance appeared to have been discussed here. The Istanbul meeting was intended, according to the six powers, mainly to test Iran’s willingness to engage in a serious process to resolve doubts about whether its nuclear program was aimed at producing nuclear weapons.
This is a bit mysterious: how was it that Iran’s seriousness was tested in a meeting where no concrete proposals appear to have been made, much less agreed to? Those diplomats who leaked to the Times spoke about some things Iran might be asked to do, perhaps in the next meeting. “While those measures do not appear to have been agreed to, the talks at least did not end in failure,” said the Times. How could they end in failure if Iran’s only purpose, and the key purpose of the P5+1 diplomats as well, was only to have another meeting? It appears that all present have at least one common goal: making an Israeli strike harder. This suggests that the next meeting will not “end in failure” either; it will agree to yet another meeting, presumably in July. After all, if concrete proposals are tabled one mustn’t rush the Iranians; they must have time to take them home to Tehran and think them through.
It is hard to know what the Iranians make of all this, except perhaps that diplomacy is fun. Note that the head of the U.S. delegation, Wendy Sherman, requested a private one-on-one meeting with the head of the Iranian delegation. As I write this, there are conflicting reports as to whether her request was accepted or rejected, but all accounts are very clear on one point: she was the one asking, not Saeed Jalili. This action ensures that the United States appears to Iran as a suitor, anxious for these talks to succeed–and apparently more anxious than is Iran.
It will take a few days and more leaks to find out what transpired in Istanbul. Perhaps there is reason to be hopeful, but from what we can see today that depends on what you are hoping for: stopping Israel, or stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
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April 12, 2012
In the absence of very tight monitoring, and in light of Iran’s increasing mastery over limited centrifuge technology, permitting the country to continue enriching uranium at any level would still give it the option of developing nuclear weapons.
With talks between the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran set to resume in Istanbul on April 13, officials are discussing possible compromises that might persuade Tehran to give up any ambition of developing nuclear weapons. Apparently, one of the principal components of these proposals is acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium to around 3.5%, a level suitable for civilian power reactors. But this could turn out to be a fatal bargain: centrifuge technology is easy to hide, and there are few barriers to continuing enrichment up to 90%, the level needed for an atomic bomb.
BUYING LITTLE TIME
Natural uranium contains just 0.7% of the fissile isotope U-235, which is the key to both controlled chain reactions in nuclear power plants and uncontrolled, explosive chain reactions in atomic bombs. Enriching this material is a progressively easier process. For example, if the aim is to produce 90% enriched uranium, reaching the 3.5% level requires some 75% of the work. By the time 20% enrichment is reached — the level Iran currently achieves — 90% of the work has been done. Therefore, cutting a deal in which Iran gives up enriching to 20% but continues enriching to 3.5% would buy relatively little time. Worse, it would not solve the more fundamental problem: the unknown scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
In 1943, when the United States was trying to enrich uranium to make a bomb, it used two different methods. One scheme, based on magnets called calutrons, used huge amounts of electricity and employed more than 10,000 people. The other, using diffusion through specially made barriers, was housed in the largest building ever constructed. The beauty of the centrifuge method, used in Europe to fuel civilian nuclear power plants since the 1970s, is that it requires much less: a building the size of a supermarket and electricity equivalent to a small industrial plant. The danger is that the same technology, when mastered, can easily make the high-enriched uranium (HEU) needed for nuclear explosives. And the building where this is being done can be difficult to detect, as evidenced by North Korea’s surprise 2010 revelation that it had built a centrifuge plant in its Yongbyon nuclear complex, and Iran’s 2009 admission of work on a new facility at Fordow.
Currently, Iran’s capabilities appear limited because of operational problems with its IR-1 centrifuge, based on a design received from Pakistan but originally developed in Europe. The IR-1 is prone to breaking down, and Tehran’s efforts to develop more advanced models have been hampered by international restrictions on its ability to import the requisite high-strength steel, carbon fiber, aluminum, and other components and machine tools.
Nevertheless, Iran has built a formidable number of IR-1s and has succeeded in enriching uranium to around 20%. Tehran claims it has enriched to only 19.75%, thereby avoiding the 20% level, which is notionally the divide between low-enriched uranium and HEU (so designated because it is theoretically possible to make a nuclear explosive using 20% enriched uranium, though such a device would be so bulky and otherwise impractical that it would hardly qualify as a bomb).
Originally, the government’s enrichment activities were confined to the giant facility at Natanz in central Iran. Recently, however, the higher-enrichment centrifuge cascades were transferred to Fordow near the holy city of Qom. This new facility was built under a mountain so as to be immune from attack. Tehran has publicly stated that it plans to build ten such facilities, so other locations may already be designated or even under construction. Similarly, Pakistan — the source of Iran’s technology — began with a main centrifuge plant at Kahuta, then built a second facility at Gadwal, housed in one building on the grounds of a huge munitions factory near Islamabad. Pakistan also has one or more small centrifuge plants hidden in mountain tunnels.
Without a diplomatic breakthrough, Iran would likely be able to produce weapons-grade HEU eventually despite the IR-1’s limitations, since even inefficient centrifuges seem capable of success given enough time. Although many Western experts sneer at the IR-1’s poor performance, some estimate that Iran could make enough HEU for a bomb perhaps later this year or in 2013. If Iran chose the breakout path, it could conceivably make several bombs’ worth of HEU within a matter of a few weeks or months, depending on the number of centrifuges deployed.
STRICTER SAFEGUARDS AND MORE OPENNESS
The compromises that will be considered in Istanbul likely include tight safeguard arrangements to prevent undisclosed Iranian activities and/or the diversion of nuclear material, as well as inspection of any suspicious sites. But a more immediate challenge is for Tehran to answer existing questions about suspect activities that suggest it has, at least in the past, worked on nuclear weapons designs and breached its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This is a fundamental part of restoring international confidence in the peaceful scope of Iran’s nuclear program, in both the immediate and long term. Without this more complete sort of understanding, the reputation and work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be fundamentally undermined.
Throughout past discussions, Iran has repeatedly offered “transparency” to build international confidence in its activities. Thus, the first step going forward should be to secure a clear commitment by competent Iranian authorities to full openness and cooperation with the IAEA. Tehran must fully implement its obligations under the IAEA statutes and Safeguards Agreement. It must also return to provisional implementation of the Additional Protocol, which strengthens inspection regimes, and work toward early ratification of that protocol. In addition, it must provide all necessary access and cooperation as the IAEA verifies the correctness and completeness of its declaration.
Restraining Iran’s enrichment activities might also involve limiting its number of operational centrifuges from around 10,000 to just 1,000 — a figure commensurate with estimates of the country’s maximum conceivable need for enriched uranium. In reality, though, Iran has no need to make enriched uranium at all — the fuel for its Bushehr power reactor is supplied by Russia, and the fuel rods in the Tehran Research Reactor (used to produce medical isotopes) could be supplied from abroad if Tehran permitted it. In the past, Iran has explained its activities by speaking of elaborate plans to become a global supplier of enriched uranium for nuclear power stations. It could try this gambit once again in Istanbul or later talks.
Even if the parties make some diplomatic progress at the Istanbul summit, they are unlikely to build much trust. Yet such confidence building — which includes an even stricter safeguards regime — is essential if compromise is to work. In the absence of progress, Iran could be tempted to pursue clandestine programs. And in the meantime, its centrifuge skills and ability to produce enough high-enriched uranium for a small arsenal of bombs are steadily increasing.
Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute. Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, formerly served as deputy director-general and head of the Department of Safeguards at the IAEA.
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By HERB KEINON
Jerusalem Post, 17/04/2012
True diplomacy would be if PA President Abbas would meet Netanyahu himself, give him letter with Palestinian positions.
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Tuesday for the first time ever, diplomatic theater – rather than true diplomacy – will be on display.
True diplomacy would be if PA President Mahmoud Abbas would meet Netanyahu himself and give him a letter stating the Palestinian negotiating positions.
Israel could then respond a week later with Netanyahu going to Abbas and presenting him with a letter spelling out Israel’s positions. Those two letters could then form the starting positions from which the two sides would start, and the goal of the negotiations would be to narrow the gaps – such is diplomacy.
Diplomatic theater, however, is when one side presents a letter laying out preconditions that the other side has rejected a thousand times in the past, knowing full well that they will reject them again this time as well. That is not diplomacy, but rather diplomacy as show.
The various drafts that have emerged of Abbas’s much discussed letter to Netanyahu indicated that the document – whether worded antagonistically or toned down a bit – will be little more than an ultimatum.
The Palestinians will lay down their narrative, and then say that they will enter negotiations only if Israel stops all settlement construction, accepts the pre-1967 lines as the baseline of talks, and frees Palestinian prisoners jailed before the signing of the Oslo accords.
If Israel does not accept those conditions, the letter is expected to say, then – depending on which draft of the letter will be the one ultimately handed over – the PA will go back to the UN seeking unilateral statehood recognition, or throw all responsibilities in the West Bank back on Israel, or dissolve itself. This does not represent the opening position of negotiations, but rather an either/or proposition. Either accept the terms – terms the Palestinians have set out for months and which Israel has rejected – or drastic steps will be taken.
The question that arises, however, is why go through the motion of presenting a letter. If the Palestinians are essentially going to say the same thing in their letter that they have said for the last three years in avoiding negotiations with Netanyahu, then why bother with the whole letter business in the first place?
The answer is simple: Theatrical effect.
Since the PA’s gambit for unilateral statehood recognition failed at the UN in September, two things have happened: the Palestinians have fallen off the world’s radar screen, replaced by Syria and Iran; and they have been under pressure to enter negotiations. The pressure has not only come from the US, but also from the EU and the Quartet.
Indeed, the Quartet just last week called for a return to negotiations.
What the Palestinians need to do is both get back on the world’s agenda and demonstrate to the international community that they really do want to negotiate, but that it is Israel and its settlement construction that is holding up the process. With the Fayyad meeting the Palestinians hope to both regain some of the world’s lost attention and also say, “Look, we went that extra step, we were even willing to meet Netanyahu and deliver him a letter, but he still refuses to negotiate.”
Blame him, not us is the theme the Palestinians hope the world will take away from Tuesday’s letter-giving exercise. The letter is a prop in this show.
Only fools, however, underestimate the importance of props. And Netanyahu, who routinely uses all kinds of props during his speeches to grab and keep attention, is no fool.
This is a prime minister who understands props. For instance at a press conference earlier this month to mark three years of his government, he drew a tree to grab attention – a prop. At his AIPAC speech in Washington last month he waved an exchange of letters from the World Jewish Congress to the US War Department during the Holocaust – a prop. And at the UN in 2010 he unfurled the original blueprints of Auschwitz to blast the UN for having invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak – another prop.
Netanyahu does not intend to be out-propped by the PA, and has already made clear that within days of receiving Abbas’s letter, he will write one himself to the Palestinian leader. He will not leave the Palestinian letter unanswered; he will not leave that field of play wide open for the Palestinians.
But after the dust has cleared from both missives, the sides at the end of the month will probably be pretty much at the same place that they are today: stalemated, with Abbas again waiting either for Netanyahu to fall (unlikely), or for US President Barack Obama to feel sufficiently empowered if he wins the elections in November to force Israel’s hand. In the meantime, Abbas will likely again try his hand at the UN and in various international forums, because even if the script is well worn and tired, somehow the diplomatic show must go on.