Nuclear Talks: Crisis Group Points the Way

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

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. The nuclear talks with Iran have no stakes in them whatsoever, in fact they are a minor but public part of Washington- Tehran negotiations.

    If Tehran were ever to create a nuclear weapon and a missile that might delivery it, they would both be placed in a museum of antiquated weaponry. There is close to zero chance that it would ever be able to hit Israel. There best chance of delivery would be to give it to an old woman and send it by bus.

    What these talks are REALLY about is Cold War 2 that the Obamanation has declared against Russia and China. Washington no longer needs Iran as its fake enemy to boogie boogie the American people with.

    Washington is now making real enemies out of the really big boys in Moscow and Beijing. What Washington wants to know is whether Iran is going to go into the new Moscow- Beijing anti Empire axes, or is going to be non- aligned.

    If it chooses the latter its image will be resurrected in Empire propaganda media.

    What is at stake is what will Iran’s role be in the Levant? What role will Iran play in Pakistan and Afghanistan? And who is Iran going to sell its oil to and in what currency?

  2. Interesting post, thank you Mr Jenkins. The ICG recommendations are too one sided as well as unrealistic as far as depending upon Russia to supply fuel into the future. With the U.S. instigated B.S. in the Ukraine toward posting NATO there, with an eye on the possible breakup of even Russia for the mineral extraction, Iran would be stupid to go along with such crap. The situation, which is constantly in the spotlight thanks to Israeli/AIPAC/Congressional Israeli First before the U.S.A., needs to be shut down once and for all before the idiots/stooges cause the M.E. to explode so no one survives.

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