Latest Iran Nuclear Talks
Mar 21, 2014
March 21, 2014
Number 03/14 #04
The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) ended yesterday, with little sign the gaps between the parties were narrowed significantly though it was reported the ongoing building of the Arak heavy water reactor – which will produce bomb-ready plutonium – was raised as a major issue.
First up is Israeli academic proliferation expert Dr. Emily Landau, who, in a piece written before the current round of talks, outlines some realities that need to be confronted in the nuclear negotiations. She says that despite the interim deal to “freeze” elements of the Iranian program, that program continues to thrive based on “ambiguity” in the agreement – including in terms of work continuing on advanced centrifuges which will vastly cut Iran’s time to a nuclear breakout, and in terms of the failure to address ballistic missiles or the military elements of the nuclear program in the agreement. For her full argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, a knowledgeable exploration of the various safeguards an effective nuclear agreement with Iran would require is here.
Next up is Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert Michael Singh, who addresses the consequences of the abandonment by the P5+1 of the UN Security Council requirement that Iran halt all uranium enrichment. He notes the interim agreement promises Iran a “mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs” but Singh mounts a strong argument that in fact Iran has no actual “practical need” for any enrichment. He then goes on to list the negative consequences of allowing enrichment, and for all of Singh’s analysis of this important issue, CLICK HERE.
Finally American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead points to the significance of a possibly critically important development in the Iranian nuclear saga – recent Russian threats to abandon cooperation with efforts to halt a nuclear Iran if Moscow is punished for the recent invasion of Crimea. He calls this a threat with teeth, because, as a UN Security Council and P5+1 member, a Russian abandonment of its admittedly limited cooperation with the efforts to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb risks unravelling the whole Western strategy toward Iran. For the details of Mead’s discussion of this worrying development, CLICK HERE. More on the problem of relying on Russia to help stop a nuclear Iran comes from Tom Wilson, writing on Commentary’s “Contentions” blog, while Jonathan Toben argues that in the wake of this development, recent Israeli signals that they are still seriously considering taking military action against Iranian nuclear sites make sense.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Reports say Iran has been allegedly continuing to seek to illegally purchase black market components for its nuclear program, but the US says this does not violate the interim agreement. Tom Wilson and Jennifer Rubin comment on what this says about the value of the deal.
- American foreign policy analyst Michael Doran says US President Obama is bluffing when he says the potential US use of force against Iran remains on the table. The opposite argument comes from noted journalist Jeffrey Goldberg.
- Elliot Abrams on the failure of the US administration to raise the issue of Iranian human rights. More details from inside Iran on the severity of the problem here.
- Details about Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed militia recruiting large numbers of Iraqis to fight and die on the pro-Assad side in the Syrian civil war. Plus, a good paper on the current state of Iranian proxy Hezbollah’s political and security situation.
- Israeli security analyst Michael Segal argues in detail that Iran’s regional political fortunes are rising in the midst of the increasing power vacuum in the Middle East. Plus, Lee Smith discusses the reality that this is also the perception in the Gulf states.
- Dr. Jonathan Spyer offers more discussion of the shifting regional alliances in the wake of a perceived US withdrawal from the region – including the recent ructions between Qatar and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
- Jeffrey Goldberg discusses the terrible human rights abuses in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, and other problematic policies of that Emirate.
- Isi Leibler writes about Putin, Ukraine and the Jews.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Ahron Shapiro provides yet more data proving that construction in Israeli settlements is predominantly in settlement blocs everyone expects Israel will keep in any peace deal.
- Allon Lee’s latest “Media Week” column.
- Another video from Ehud Yaari, speaking this time at the Sydney Institute.
- Jeremy Jones, writing in the Australian, explains why, despite recent controversy, the 18-year record of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination is overwhelmingly one of success in providing redress for racist harassment without impinging upon free speech.
A new round of negotiations begins tomorrow, but will the Obama administration cut through Iran’s deliberate ambiguity on the military use of its nuclear program?
As the next round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear capabilities opens this week, the P5+1group has staked out its official line. According to their negotiators, the interim deal with Iran has halted aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities and even led to some rollback of the program.
This position sounds nice, but it isn’t the whole story: Unfortunately, it leaves out some crucial facts. Missing from this narrative is that in some important respects, Iran’s nuclear program is also progressing dangerously.
The most important issue that constitutes, rather than a retreat, a “roll-forward” of the program regards research and development on ever more advanced generations of Iranian centrifuges. Over the course of December 2013-January 2014, Iran and the P5+1 argued over the extent of R&D that Iran was allowed under the interim agreement, but the P5+1 was ultimately forced to concede that the language of the Joint Plan of Action (their interim agreement) did not prevent Iran from conducting R&D into any aspect of advanced new generation centrifuges, as long as it does not operate them. This includes the IR-8 model, which Iran has announced it intends to begin testing.
This is not a small matter. When stockpiles of low enriched uranium – which Iran continues to churn out (and actually at an increased rate, because the centrifuges that were producing 20 percent enriched uranium have now been recommissioned to enrich to the 5 percent level) – are fed into the advanced centrifuges under development, spinning many times faster than the ones currently in use, Iran will very quickly be able to enrich to the high levels needed for nuclear weapons.
This is not the outcome that the P5+1 wanted, but due to the ambiguous language inserted in the interim deal – in order to try to smooth over basic differences between the two sides – the international negotiators exposed themselves to Iranian manipulation.
Indeed, Iran’s nuclear program thrives on ambiguity. Iran tries to avoid action that can easily be construed as an outright violation of an agreement, and gets where it wants to go by exploiting ambiguity – beginning with the ambiguous formulations of the NPT itself.
Ambiguity provides a cover for Iran’s interpretations and actions, and must be avoided at all costs in any new deal with Iran.
Iran will also be working hard in the coming months of negotiations – as it did regarding negotiations on the interim deal – to avoid including issues that will seriously undermine its ability to maintain a military nuclear option. Iran insists it will not close down facilities at Fordow and Arak, nor dismantle even one centrifuge. Two additional topics that Iran will resist including in the context of a comprehensive deal are its ballistic missile capabilities and what is known as the Possible (better called ‘Probable’) Military Dimensions of its nuclear program. The P5+1 cannot agree to leave any of these issues unaddressed in a final comprehensive deal with Iran.
The issue of ballistic missiles was raised in recent weeks, as Iran carried out new tests, and the U.S. stated its intent to address the issue in any comprehensive deal. Ballistic missiles are a crucial component of a nuclear weapons capability, but Iran is strongly resisting their inclusion in the talks on the grounds that they are not in and of themselves “nuclear.”
But ballistic missiles are already included in UN Security Council resolutions on Iran, and it would be ludicrous to leave them out of a comprehensive deal.
Clarifying the Possible Military Dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program is also of central importance to any comprehensive deal. Iran has stonewalled investigation into the PMD for years; it continues to refuse the IAEA entry into Parchin or to clarify the full list of concerns that the IAEA has about its nuclear activities of a purely military nature, including experiments with neutron initiators and research into nuclear warhead design. The last time the IAEA published its concerns was in a special annex to a report back in November 2011.
A disturbing piece published by Reuters in late February this year reports that the IAEA was poised in 2013 to compile a major report on Iran, with more evidence of its weapons-related research, but that the idea was dropped in light of the election of Rohani and renewed negotiations with the P5+1.
It is truly misguided to desist from delving into past military-related activities in order not to “upset” the Iranians or interfere with negotiations on a new deal. Any comprehensive deal must reveal the military dimensions of Iran’s program. First, in order to expose Iran as having lied and cheated for decades, which means it can no longer hide behind the mantra that it has “done no wrong” and therefore has no obligation to make a deal. Second, because verification of Iran’s future activities critically depends on understanding how the country was deceiving the international community in the past. As such, clearing up past Iranian activities is critical to current assessments, and to any future deal reached with Iran, that hinges, as U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman has said, on verification. Therefore, we cannot “leave the past in the past”.
The U.S. must take the lead in ensuring that the critical elements noted here are included in any comprehensive deal with Iran. Two weeks ago, Senator Robert Menendez provided sharp and to-the-point analysis of the situation at the AIPAC conference in Washington DC. Hopefully the Obama administration in the coming months will be on the same page on these important issues, and display the necessary determination to confront Iran and its ongoing intransigence and blatant lack of good faith on the nuclear front.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation (2012). Follow her on Twitter: @EmilyBLandau
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Arm Control Today, March 2014
In the debate over sanctions on Iran—their role in bringing Tehran to the negotiating table and their proper place in U.S. diplomatic strategy in the future—scant attention has been paid to a major shift in the negotiating position of the P5+1, the group of six countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that is negotiating with Tehran over the Iranian nuclear program.
No longer is the P5+1 demanding that Iran halt uranium enrichment. Indeed, in the November 24 first-step nuclear accord, the Joint Plan of Action, the P5+1 all but concedes that Iran will be permitted to enrich in perpetuity. In separate comments that have quickly become conventional wisdom among Iran analysts, U.S. negotiators now characterize their previous position that Iran should halt enrichment as “maximalist.” Although undoubtedly expedient, this shift away from a zero-enrichment negotiating position is misguided and unnecessary.
The U.S. shift away from zero enrichment to limited enrichment represents a significant diplomatic victory for Iran. For the last decade, the position of the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK) and then the P5+1 had been that Iran must “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development.” This position was enshrined as an Iranian obligation in a series of UN Security Council resolutions. Iran, however, asserted a “right to enrich” and refused to halt enrichment after resuming it when nuclear talks with the European Union broke down in 2005. This difference formed the core of the confrontation that subsequently developed between Iran and the allies.
Beginning in 2005, the United States, the EU, and others imposed onerous sanctions on Iran, effectively cutting the country off from the global financial system and sharply curtailing its oil revenues and other forms of trade. Nevertheless, it was not Iran but the P5+1 that flinched first. In October 2009, the allies proposed a fuel swap, under which Iran would ship low-enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for fuel plates for its Tehran Research Reactor, which uses uranium enriched to a higher level to produce medical isotopes. The proposal did not explicitly recognize Iran’s claimed right to enrich, but seemed to implicitly accept that Iran would continue enriching uranium to a low level of 5 percent or less. The November 24 joint plan represents the culmination of this shift.
Iran, which is a net exporter of fossil fuels and electricity, has insisted that it desires enrichment solely for peaceful purposes. The text of the joint plan indicates that Iran will be permitted a “mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs.” The notion that Iran has any practical need for enrichment, however, is a dubious one.
Iran is blessed with abundant resources of oil and natural gas, so much so that it was one of the world’s leading exporters of these fuels before the recent sanctions. It provided refined fuel to domestic consumers at deeply subsidized rates, making Iranian per capita consumption of gasoline among the highest in the world. Even if one puts this aside and accepts Tehran’s argument that it wants to diversify its energy supply for environmental and other reasons, enriching uranium makes little sense. Because importing fuel is much more economical, very few non-nuclear-weapon states enrich their own uranium.
Iran may claim that it does not want to import reactor fuel—although this is precisely what it does for the Bushehr reactor—so that it can ensure a secure supply. Because Iran has minimal uranium reserves, however, it would remain dependent on imports of natural uranium. Indeed, Iran’s two reported uranium mines together annually produce insufficient uranium for even a single 1,000-megawatt reactor. As former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker and former Secretary of Defense William Perry recently observed, “Iran can never become self-sufficient” in its nuclear energy program. Iran’s energy security would be far better served by reducing its reliance on imports of refined petroleum and natural gas and lowering domestic consumption.
A common argument is that Iran must retain an enrichment capability because the Iranian people demand it, or because Iran, having made a major investment in enrichment, needs to save face. Although a recent poll indicated that 96 percent of Iranians believe that “maintaining the right to advance a nuclear program is worth the price being paid in economic sanctions and international isolation,” only 6 percent agreed that “continuing our nuclear enrichment program” is one of the top concerns they want the Iranian government to address. Of far greater priority are issues such as economic recovery and increased employment. This suggests that the Iranian people would be open to compromises that provide economic relief while preserving Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program without specifically permitting enrichment.
In short, Iran has no “practical need” for uranium enrichment, unless its actual desire is to build or preserve the option to build a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the Iranian government has not even convinced its own people that its intentions are peaceful. The poll cited above finds that 55 percent of Iranians believe that Iran “has ambitions to produce nuclear weapons.”
One might argue that even if Iran has no practical need for enrichment, the P5+1 shift from zero to limited enrichment is expedient because it eases the way to a diplomatic agreement while incurring little cost to the P5+1. This neglects the serious downsides of permitting enrichment in Iran.
First and foremost, allowing Iran to enrich complicates the task of verifying that Iran is not diverting ostensibly safeguarded material to a parallel, covert nuclear weapons program. If Iran is permitted to enrich, by implication it also will be permitted to mine, convert, and stockpile uranium. In addition, it will be permitted to manufacture centrifuges and possibly import centrifuge components and related materials. Under the joint plan, Iran is even permitted to continue to research and test advanced centrifuges. Such work could significantly shorten Iran’s breakout time if it abrogated the nuclear agreement or that agreement expired.
Verifying nondiversion at every point along this supply chain is a formidable task. If Iran were to agree to forgo enrichment entirely and instead import its reactor fuel, however, any of the above activities, if detected, would serve as an early warning of possible clandestine nuclear activities.
Allowing Iran to enrich raises questions about broader U.S. policy on enrichment. Washington has sought to contain the spread of this technology, given its dual-use nature. The United States held out as a “gold standard” the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement it signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009, whereby the latter voluntarily agreed to forgo enrichment and reprocessing. This was meant to be not only a signal to Iran, but also an effort to strengthen the nonproliferation regime globally, although the question of whether this standard should be applied universally is debated by nonproliferation experts.
U.S. abandonment of its effort to require Iran to halt enrichment would not only threaten the agreement with the UAE, which, like Iran’s other regional rivals, would have an incentive to match Tehran’s capabilities, but undermine any effort to persuade countries to forgo enrichment and reprocessing, whether as the result of a legal or merely political commitment. In seeking to do so, Washington would be in the unenviable and perhaps unsustainable position of seeking to deny allies the technology it has permitted to a country that it views as an adversary and that has repeatedly violated the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The likely result would be the spread of enrichment technology.
Finally, permitting Iran to enrich, especially in the context of an agreement that does not require Tehran to abandon support for terrorism or other destabilizing policies, will be seen as a defeat for Washington. At a time when U.S. influence in the Middle East is already at low ebb, the message to allies and adversaries alike would be one of diminishing U.S. will. The effect on the global nonproliferation regime would be the same: Iran will have successfully defied the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and the UN Security Council after rejecting the legitimacy of both, sending the message that international nonproliferation obligations are malleable.
Zero enrichment is hardly a maximalist position; it entails offering Iran something it deeply needs (sanctions relief) in exchange for something it does not (enrichment). There was no tactical need for the P5+1 to walk away from zero enrichment. At a time when sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian economy, the P5+1 should allow the pressure of sanctions to work to full effect. Yielding on enrichment may hasten a nuclear agreement, but would threaten vital U.S. interests such as nonproliferation and regional stability.
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Walter Russell Mead
“Via Meadia” – The American Interest
March 19, 2014
In the most naked threat yet from Russia, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news service that Russia could “raise the stakes” in its confrontation with the West by revising its stance on Iran. The Associated Press has the story.
The threat has teeth. Russia is not only a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and so able to block new sanctions or other action against Iran by the world body; it is also a member of the P5+1 negotiating group working to reach a nuclear compromise with Iran.
If Russia switches its stance from pushing Iran, however lightly, toward abandoning its nuclear program toward tacitly or overtly promising to support Iran regardless of the nuclear issue, the West’s strategy toward Iran could rapidly unravel. Closer economic relations with Russia could help protect Iran from the effect of renewed sanctions, and any technical assistance with either the nuclear or long range missile components of Iran’s strategy could dramatically accelerate Iran’s buildup.
We’ll have to see whether this threat is taken up and repeated by other senior members of the Russian security and political establishments, but if it is, we will have a clear sign that Russia’s goals aren’t limited to securing bases in Crimea. Russia doesn’t just want to win this crisis; it doesn’t want President Obama to escape from it without a crushing public humiliation.
Linking the Ukraine crisis with the Iran negotiation is an American nightmare; it might just be a Russian dream come true. President Obama has tried to separate the nuclear question from the geopolitics of the region. He has pursued a nuclear accommodation with Iran despite that country’s intense and unremitting quest to dominate Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. That separation has unnerved U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who fear that the United States is preparing to let Iran control the region in exchange for what inevitably would be a less than ironclad assurance that Iran’s nuclear program would never cross the threshold into making actual bombs.
The Obama strategy has always been a risky one; if Russia shifts into active cooperation with Iran, it is hard to see how the White House can keep hope alive. Again, we will have to see whether this statement really represents Russian policy rather than rhetoric, but if it does, President Obama may have to choose between a shattering humiliation in the Black Sea, or a significantly greater risk of war in the Persian Gulf.