Iran Seeks Reciprocity in Nuclear Negotiations

by Mohammad Ali Shabani

Iran and the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — are set to resume nuclear talks in Kazakhstan on 26 February, but little appears to have changed since their previous meeting in Russia last summer.

In terms of concessions, the P5+1’s “updated” proposal reportedly includes an “easing” of sanctions targeting exports of gold and precious metals to Iran. This is in addition to last year’s offer of selling Iran aviation spare parts and providing fuel for a medical reactor and other civil nuclear cooperation.

The P5+1 doesn’t seem to have changed its demands. Iran continues to be urged to stop enrichment to 19.75%, shut down its Fordow plant and ship out its stockpile of this grade of uranium. Speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, a Western official has said the P5+1 wants its demands to now “build in buffer time” to ensure that it would take Iran “more time to restart Fordow.” The same Western official insisted that “we use very careful wording such as decreasing readiness of Fordow”, emphasizing that “these are face-saving words.”

The only Iranian reaction specific to the reported P5+1’s demands so far has come from influential MP Alaeddin Borujerdi, who reportedly said that “Fordow will never be shut down.” Pointing to the site’s well-protected nature, Borujerdi added that “our national duty is to be able to defend our nuclear and vital centers against an enemy threat.” To be clear, parliament has little say over the nuclear issue. However, according to former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, members of the parliamentary national security & foreign policy commission (which Borujerdi heads) used to be invited to meetings of the foreign policy committee of the Supreme National Security Council. In short, while Borujerdi has little say over the nuclear issue, he likely has real insight into debates within the body in charge of the matter.

More broadly, Iran’s Supreme Leader said in a speech Saturday that the Islamic Republic doesn’t want atomic weapons, adding that if it “intended to possess nuclear arms, no power could stop us.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Washington to show “logic”, underscoring that “this is the only way to interact” with Iran. Crucially, he linked this argument to a portrayal of American-devised sanctions as the main obstacle to dialogue between Iran and the United States.

It is encouraging to see the P5+1 start recognizing the importance of saving face for Iran. However, from an Iranian point of view, the crucial element of reciprocity is still lacking in the group’s offers.

Iran started enriching uranium to 19.75% at its Fordow plant on February 9th 2010. It did so after failing to purchase fuel for its US-supplied Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes used in the treatment of over 800,000 Iranians.

Ever since, the United States and the European Union have imposed unilateral sanctions targeting Iranian banks, shipping and insurance, oil sales, repatriation of crude export revenues, sales of gold and precious metals — the list continues.

Demanding Iranian acceptance of “stop-shut-ship” is tantamount to asking Tehran to turn back the nuclear clock to February 8th 2010.

From Tehran’s point of view, that might be a possibility — if the sanctions clock would be turned back three years, too.

That’s not what the P5+1 reportedly has in mind. US sanctions targeting Iran’s barter trade with gold came into effect on February 6th this year. Offering to “ease” such penalties in Kazakhstan on February 26th would amount to offering to turn back the sanctions clock three weeks.

The P5+1’s current posture can be viewed through two lenses. On one hand, the mainly Western members of the group may simply think it’s unnecessary to make any serious concessions, motivated by the belief that time is on their side. In this vein, the P5+1 might be preparing the ground for more pressure on Iran by starting to play the blame game.

On the other hand, the P5+1 may be ready for serious concessions, but consciously avoiding making Iran an offer it can’t refuse. As the Western officials who leaked the P5+1’s position underscored, the lack of flexibility is due to a belief that Iran won’t agree to anything before its crucial June presidential elections. This view is shared by most analysts. Thus, presenting an offer that’s designed to be rejected on fair grounds may in fact be a way to avoid putting the Islamic Republic in a position where it will face sole blame for a potentially continued deadlock. Implicit here is a signal from the P5+1 that it’s willing to wait for Iran to get its house in order before resuming serious negotiations.

Regardless of which of the two scenarios is most accurate, the six months from now until the inauguration of the next Iranian president in August need not be a waste of time. All sides must take the opportunity to examine common positions so the ground can be prepared for tangible progress on the nuclear issue when the time is right.

 – Mohammad Ali Shabani is a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London and the Editor of Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs.

Photo Credit: European External Action Service

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