The latest offer to Iran of nuclear talks: don’t hold your breath

European leaders are telling their publics that the latest EU sanctions are to persuade Iran to talk to the P5+1 about its nuclear program. In the House of Commons, on 24 January, Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sanctions represent “peaceful and legitimate pressure on the Iranian government to return to negotiations”.

This begs a question: why does Iran need to be coerced into negotiating? Surely it is in Iran’s interest to take every opportunity to convince the P5+1 that it intends to abide by its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitment to place all nuclear material in its possession under International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) safeguards and to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear explosive devices—and that the 18 years during which Iran pursued a “policy of concealment” were an aberration that Iran’s leaders now regret.

The answer lies, I suspect, in the letter that EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton sent to Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on 21 October. The letter was made public by the EU on 20 January. It contains the following sentences:

We remain committed to the practical and specific suggestions which we have put forward in the past. These confidence-building steps should form first elements of a phased approach which would eventually lead to a full settlement between us, involving the full implementation by Iran of UNSC and IAEA Board of Governors’ resolutions.

Dr. Jalili and his advisers could be forgiven for interpreting these sentences to mean that there is no point in turning up for talks unless they are committed to satisfying UN and IAEA demands in full. It looks as though the real goal of sanctions is not to get Iran back to the negotiating table, but to get Iran to give way on the demands that it has spent the last six years declining to concede.

These demands have become increasingly baroque with the passage of time, but in essence they remain unchanged since 2006:

– suspension of all enrichment-related activity and of the construction of a heavy water moderated reactor (HWRR);

– application of the Additional Protocol;

– resolution of all outstanding IAEA safeguards inspection issues.

This brings us to another question: why are the P5+1 so determined to get Iran to implement all the demands that, using their political muscle, they have persuaded the Security Council to adopt? After all, they could have recognised that over time some of these demands have become less relevant to the global community’s non-proliferation needs, and that some might more readily be accepted by Iran in the context of an open-ended search for common ground through the give-and-take of a genuine negotiation.

Suspension of all enrichment-related activity stands out as the demand that now least serves a practical non-proliferation purpose. Suspension was first conceived, in 2003, as a way of halting Iran’s progress towards the mastery of enrichment technology, while the IAEA looked into the nature and purpose of the activities that Iran had undertaken when pursuing a “policy of concealment”. Now the P5+1 look like a hapless groom trying to shut the stable door long after the horse has bolted: Iran has developed three or more centrifuge models and appears to have overcome most, if not all, of the technical problems involved.

Of course suspension would put a halt to the accumulation of low-enriched uranium (LEU) by Iran. But Iran’s LEU stocks are not in themselves a proliferation threat. They are under IAEA safeguards. Any attempt by Iran to draw on them for use in a clandestine enrichment program would be brought immediately to the world’s attention. The calibration of future LEU production to reactor fuel needs is something that Iran might be ready to concede in the context of a genuine open-ended negotiation.

Suspension of HWRR construction is probably too far advanced now for Iran to be ready to write off its investment. But from a proliferation perspective this suspension is no more vital than the suspension of LEU production. Once completed, the HWRR will be placed under IAEA safeguards. Any diversion of spent fuel rods, containing plutonium, to a reprocessing plant would be quickly detected. Besides, there is no evidence to date that Iran intends to build a reprocessing plant; hence there is good reason to think that Iran might be ready to foreswear reprocessing as part of a balanced deal.

Continuing P5+1 insistence on reapplication of the Additional Protocol is entirely reasonable, but is another demand that Iran would almost certainly accept if it felt that the playing-field were level. It must be apparent to Iran’s leaders that the Majles vote to terminate application prior to ratification was a classic own goal.

Had the Protocol remained in force since 2006, the IAEA might well have concluded by now that there are no undeclared “nuclear activities or material” in Iran, greatly complicating the task of any who wish to exploit the nuclear controversy for ulterior purposes.  (The alleged nuclear-related studies, which now constitute the only major issue on Iran’s IAEA file, fall outside the scope of IAEA safeguards. The IAEA mandate for investigating them comes from the Security Council, not from Iran’s NPT safeguards agreement. Such studies are “nuclear-related activities”, not “nuclear activities”.)

These alleged studies are nonetheless the biggest obstacle to a peaceful settlement. They cannot be ignored but they are problematic because:

– The West asserts that the evidence for them is authentic but seemingly lacks the means to satisfy Iran that they are not forgeries.

– Initially the IAEA secretariat took a sceptical view of the authenticity of this evidence. In the last two years the secretariat seems to have become more confident that the material is authentic, but they have not spelled out why in sufficient detail for those who are free of all political influence to be able to form their own judgements.

– Iran may well be deterred from making an avowal and moving on—assuming there is something for them to avow—by the thought that the West might try to use an avowal to persuade non-Western members of the Security Council to further tighten UN sanctions, or authorise an attack on Iran (though I suspect that now Russia has achieved WTO admission it will be more robust in resisting Western pressure for anti-Iranian Council resolutions).

A solution to the alleged studies issue is not inconceivable, however. In the context of a genuine, open-ended negotiation one can imagine Western diplomats finding ways to reassure Iran that an avowal will not be misused—unless, as some fear, Western policy is driven not by non-proliferation goals, but by some ulterior purpose.

Other Obstacles to a Peaceful Settlement

The inflexibility apparent in Baroness Ashton’s letter, and the West’s apparent failure to take a fresh look at how Western non-proliferation goals might most realistically be achieved, are not my only reasons for feeling pessimistic about prospects for a peaceful settlement.

First, were there to be a genuine P5+1/Iran negotiation this year, what would the West have to offer Iran? The White House acted on Congressional demands in December and prevailed on EU doubters to adopt oil sanctions in January because, in an electoral year, it wants protection for the President from the charge of being weak on Iran. The White House will not easily surrender that protection by allowing the EU to repeal its oil sanctions in return for Iranian concessions, or offer meaningful US concessions.

Second, Western policy appears to be suffering from a sense of proportion failure.  The British Defence Secretary announced in Washington on 5 January that Iran is working “flat-out” to make nuclear weapons. The US intelligence community, however, (and now, if Haaretz can be believed, even the Israeli intelligence community), assesses that the decision to make such weapons has yet to be taken, and may not be taken provided the likely consequences of taking it remain dissuasive.

Then the Canadian Prime Minister said that Iran is a “very serious threat to international peace and security”, followed by President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron accusing Iran of being on a path that “threatens the peace and security of us all”. Yet the Security Council has so far failed to determine that Iran’s nuclear activities represent a “threat to the peace”. This is in marked contrast to what the Council has said about North Korea’s nuclear excesses. All this raises questions about Western perceptions of Iran and somewhat undermines the validity of the “international obligations” that the Council has imposed on Iran, and that Iran is frequently called upon to respect. (A careful reading of chapter VII of the UN Charter suggests that a threat to the peace determination ought to precede the creation of obligations under article 41.)

If Western policy-makers really believe that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to international peace and security, they cannot be expected to accept Iran’s NPT right to enrich (provided all Iranian nuclear material is under safeguards), and consequently hope of a peaceful settlement is vain. The fact that most of the world believes that Iran has yet to become a threat to peace is unlikely to change anything.

The final causes for pessimism (though my list is not intended to be exhaustive) are called Saudi Arabia and Israel. It ought to be well within the range of Western diplomacy to persuade Saudi Arabia that Iran’s nuclear activities still fall short of constituting a threat to Saudi security, and to remind Riyadh that, as a party to the NPT, it is committed to refrain from seeking nuclear weapons. But I have yet to come across evidence of the West taking such a line.

The Israeli case is complicated by ever-changing messages from Tel Aviv. One day Iran’s nuclear program constitutes an existential threat to Israel, the next it does not. One day Israeli pilots are warming up their engines in preparation for take-off to the East, the next senior Israelis are explaining why an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would lead to catastrophe for Israel and the West.

Yet Israel remains hugely dependent on US benevolence. For a non-American it is hard to understand why this does not entitle the US to tell the Israelis to make a vow of silence on Iran and leave the West to settle this controversy in a manner consistent with the provisions of the NPT, and with maintaining the integrity of this vital global regime.

Like most pessimists, I am yearning for my judgements to prove mistaken.

Peter Jenkins was the UK’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA for 2001-06 and is now a partner in ADRg Ambassadors. His latest article, “The deal the West could strike with Iran”, was recently published in The Independent.

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. “These confidence-building steps should form first elements of a phased approach….”

    Should not must. That could be a slight improvement on the language of ultimatum.

  2. Iran has already offered to foreswear reprocessing.

    The list of their offers included: “Refrain from reprocessing or producing plutonium”

    Clearly, zero enrichment is a deliberately unachievable demand used to justify the continuation of sanctions etc. which are all intended to foment regime change in Iran. This has nothing to do with any nuclear weapons threat.

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