by Peter Jenkins
The talks to resolve concern about Iran’s nuclear program will resume in early September. The negotiators will have had time to read and reflect on a well-informed and wise report that the International Crisis Group (ICG) published this week. Let us hope they will have done so.
The latest negotiating deadline is November 24, which marks one year from the date the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was signed in Geneva. A further extension may be possible but will not be what any of the parties desire. The alternatives to an agreement are deeply unattractive, as the ICG points out: “a return to the sanctions versus centrifuges race” or recourse to force to destroy Iranian installations, triggering a chain of unpredictable consequences in a region where, arguably, the West already has its hands full.
So the stakes are high.
The parties cannot have failed to realise that. Yet to date both Iran and the West have been reluctant to shift from maximalist demands that they know the other cannot afford, for domestic political reasons, to concede.
This is particularly true of the issue that is at the heart of the negotiation, the resolution of which can open the way to an agreement: Iran’s possession of a nuclear technology that can be used for both civil and military purposes but is not outlawed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—uranium enrichment. This is how the ICG sums up the problem:
Negotiators are bogged down in a worn-out debate over exactly why Iran insists on uranium enrichment; its economic logic or lack thereof; whether Iran should be subject to restrictions beyond those imposed on other members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and how to calculate the time Iran would need to enrich enough uranium for one weapon – which, assuming other abilities are present, measures its “breakout capacity”.
Their solution to the problem is as follows:
- Iran should accept more quantitative constraints on the number of its centrifuges; in return, the P5+1 should accept the continuation of nuclear research and development in Iran that would enable Tehran to make greater qualitative progress;
- Iran should commit to using Russian-supplied nuclear fuel for that plant’s lifetime in return for further Russian guarantees of that supply and P5+1 civil nuclear cooperation, especially on nuclear fuel fabrication, that gradually prepares it to assume such responsibility for a possible additional plant or plants by the end of the agreement, in eleven to sixteen years;
- Instead of subjective timelines dictated by the political calendar, both sides should agree to use objective measures, such as the time the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needs to investigate Iran’s past nuclear activities, to determine the duration of the final agreement’s several phases.
These recommendations are based on a sound understanding of Iranian interests—the kind of understanding that is an essential prerequisite to an agreement that caters to the core needs of all parties.
But I am not sure that the understanding goes far enough. Might Iran want more than “a meaningful enrichment program, continued scientific advancement, and tangible sanctions relief” as the ICG says? I suspect the Iranians want to be spared the indignity of being thought dumb enough to try to break out under the eyes of international inspectors at either of their declared enrichment sites.
I also wonder whether the ICG’s recommendations are as balanced as possible. It seems to me that they entail asking rather more of Iran than of the US and its allies. The balance could be improved by the West abandoning its quest to minimize the risk of break out by reducing the number of operating centrifuges from the number agreed on last November, i.e. by imposing additional “quantitative constraints.”
The case for abandonment was strengthened on August 27 when the AFP reported that the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) is ready to test a far more efficient centrifuge than those currently installed. If Iran’s leaders were to decide to break out (there being as yet no evidence that they have), it would make more sense for them to use a small number of advanced centrifuges at a small, undeclared site than to use first-generation centrifuges at sites that are visited daily by inspectors.
So the access to centrifuge workshops that Iran conceded upon the signing of the JPA, and an Iranian commitment to refrain from deploying additional centrifuges during a confidence-building period look to be worth more than additional constraints on current capacity.
In any case, the US and Iran have come a long way since President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone last September. The ICG is to be commended for a report that can help them complete their journey.
Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Vienna, Austria, on July 13, 2014 before beginning a bilateral meeting focused on Iran’s nuclear program. Credit: State Department