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A Window of Opportunity with Iran

Volume 3, Issue 3, March 9, 2012

President Barack Obama said during a March 6 White House press conference that there was still a "window of opportunity" to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse diplomatically. With an agreement finally reached between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran to hold nuclear negotiations, the opportunity to make serious progress toward such a resolution appears to be on the horizon, with talks likely to begin in April.

The talks will be critical both in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and another war in the Middle East, but they will not solve the issue in a single meeting. Rather, the upcoming negotiations should focus on the most pressing proliferation risk: Iran's enrichment of uranium to 20%, a level that could allow Iran to rapidly produce weapons-grade material. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has previously suggested that Iran would halt enrichment to 20% in exchange for reactor fuel. That proposition should be tested.

A Serious Step-by-Step Approach

In recognition of the need to make steady progress towards a comprehensive agreement, EU foreign policy chief and P5+1 representative Catherine Ashton said in her March 6 letter to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili that the six countries were seeking a "step-by-step approach," beginning with specific confidence-building measures. An arrangement under which Iran halts enriching to 20%, therefore, would only be an intermediary step that builds trust and buys time on the road to a final settlement. If policymakers prematurely criticize such an important achievement for failing to resolve the issue all at once, it only becomes more difficult to reach a permanent agreement that places sufficient constraints and transparency over Iran's nuclear program.

Serious negotiations on such a high stakes issue will inevitably entail a series of meetings amongst the seven countries, but more importantly, bilateral talks between the United States and Iran. Iran unfortunately rejected bilateral meetings with the United States during the last round, and their willingness to do so now will be a key test of their seriousness. Contrary to myth, such sustained negotiations do not allow Iran to buy time to expand its nuclear program. In fact, in the absence of talks, Iran continued to enrich uranium and scaled up its enrichment capacity over the past year.

The recent intensified sanctions-which U.S. officials say are aimed at changing Iran's behavior and increasing negotiating leverage-also make it critical for the United States and its diplomatic partners to go back to the table with Iran to gauge whether it is willing to fulfill its nonproliferation obligations. Failure to do so would only make it more difficult for the sanctions to achieve their primary goal, because it is only through negotiations that a commitment from Tehran to alter its dangerous course can be secured.

The rough outline of a potential long-term deal has already been charted out by the P5+1, involving efforts by Iran to undertake practical steps to ensure its nuclear program will not be used for nuclear weapons in exchange for cooperation with the West in a number of areas. Accomplishing that goal will be difficult, but a sustained dialogue remains the only way to a permanent resolution.

Another Shot at the Fuel Swap?

Recent P5+1 diplomatic initiatives have centered on near-term confidence-building measures that can be used as stepping-stones to a more comprehensive agreement. A key focus has been Iran's need to fuel its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which runs on 20%-enriched uranium fuel, rather than the normal low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel used in most nuclear power reactors.

In October 2009, Iran initially agreed to a U.S.-proposed, IAEA-brokered confidence-building measure intended to fuel the TRR and alleviate concerns about Iran's accumulation of LEU. The bulk of this material, roughly 5,500 kilograms, is currently enriched to about 3.5%.

Despite Iran's initial assent, political divisions in Tehran ultimately led Iran to reject the deal. Tehran then began to increase the enrichment level of some of its LEU to 20% in February 2010, ostensibly for TRR fuel.

Months later, a diplomatic initiative by Brazil and Turkey to renew the fuel swap proposal resulted in the May 2010 Tehran Declaration between Presidents Lula da Silva, Erdogan, and Ahmadinejad.

France, Russia, and the United States rejected the Tehran Declaration on a number of grounds, highlighting the fact that it did not address Iran's production of 20%-enriched uranium nor did it address Iran's accumulation of a larger amount of LEU since the offer was proposed.

These concerns were valid and the Tehran Declaration was indeed deficient in these areas, but the three countries could have addressed these issues in any follow-up negotiations. Because Russia and France would provide the TRR fuel as part of any final arrangement, the terms of the Vienna Group would inevitably supercede that of the Tehran Declaration. In the end, Iran's 20% enrichment has not only continued unchecked, earlier this year Tehran increased its 20%-enriched uranium production by three-fold.

The dubious rationale for this scaled up production is that, in addition to fueling the TRR, Iran would need to fuel additional research reactors it intends to build in the future. This rationale stretches plausibility because Iran likely does not have the technical expertise to construct such facilities, it is already building the Arak research reactor for the same questionable rationale of medical isotope production, and Tehran has provided no information to the IAEA on its reactor construction plans.

The only plausible reason for Iran's decision to stockpile 20%-enriched uranium is to acquire material that it can rapidly convert to weapons grade should it decide to produce nuclear weapons. This dangerous prospect makes halting Iran's enrichment to 20% a near-term priority, as the accumulation of a ready stockpile of 20% material greatly reduces the timeframe in which Iran might make a dash to produce a weapon, a fact that also raises the risk of a military strike to preempt such a move.

The United States has reportedly drafted a proposed confidence building measure that would require that Iran halt 20% enrichment and ship out the 20%-enriched uranium it has produced. In exchange, the P5+1 would provide Iran with fuel for the TRR and an agreement not to pursue an additional round of UN sanctions.

Although such an arrangement would not take the place of the UN Security Council's requirement that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment, much less the need for Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA, if Iran agreed to this proposal it would effectively end one of the most dangerous aspects of Iran's existing nuclear work and create an important precedent that Tehran agree not to enrich to levels above normal reactor-grade.

There appear to be divisions in Iran about just how far they are willing to press on with enrichment to 20%. President Ahmadinejad said publicly on a number of occasions in late 2011 that Iran would be willing to "immediately halt 20% enrichment" if Iran received fuel for the TRR (a suggestion which also shows that Iran's claimed plans to construct reactors that will use 20%-enriched fuel are not to be taken seriously). The Iranian president went even further to make the startling admission that the "production of 20 percent [enriched] fuel is not economical." At the same time, Iran has recently installed additional centrifuges at its Fordow plant to increase its production of 20%-enriched uranium.

Though it would be welcome if he made the even more accurate admission that there is no enrichment level in Iran that makes economic sense, Ahamdinejad's statement suggests that there are elements in the Iranian leadership are willing to seek a deal on the issue. It is possible, if not probable, that they cannot make good on the offer just as Iran was unable to agree to the initial fuel swap proposal in 2009, but given the proliferation risk of an increasing stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium, the P5+1 cannot afford to ignore diplomatic opportunities to reduce that risk.

Russia's Step-By-Step Proposal

The principle of capping Iran's enrichment in the near-term to reactor-grade also features in a proposed step-by-step process that has been advanced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and was first publicly announced in July 2011.

The specific details of the Russian plan have not been made public, but they have been characterized as an "action for action" process in which Iranian confidence-building and transparency measures are met with an easing of sanctions by the P5+1.

So far, the other P5+1 members have not voiced public opposition to the Russian proposal, but some do not appear to support it in its current form. U.S. officials have said that Washington is studying the proposal and have held meetings with Moscow regarding the plan. Similarly, Iran publicly welcomed the proposal but has been non-committal regarding its terms, claiming it would take several months to study.

In its current form, the Russian proposal does not appear to be well tailored to address concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program as it lifts key nonproliferation sanctions early in the process before requiring sufficient levels of transparency that make those sanctions unnecessary. The principle of a step-by-step process, however, is sound, and the proposal could be adjusted to achieve the goal of reaching a comprehensive agreement.

Finding a Comprehensive Agreement

Given the difficulties in reaching even a short-term arrangement, it may seem premature to talk about what a comprehensive agreement could look like. However, it is important that the two sides have some sense of where any negotiations are intended to lead, and that Iran in particular understand what steps it needs to take to come back into full compliance with its nonproliferation obligations.

The proposal by the P5+1 in 2006 provides a broad outline of just what is expected of Iran and what Tehran could receive in return for this cooperation, although Iran would likely need to agree to additional transparency measures for a certain period of time to demonstrate that its is not seeking nuclear weapons. After all, Iran applied the IAEA Additional Protocol between 2003 and 2006 but still stonewalled some aspects of the IAEA's investigations and continued on a path to a nuclear-weapons capability.

In 2008, the P5+1 revised the package, spelling out in greater detail some of the benefits Iran would receive and making an effort to highlight those benefits directly to the Iranian people, meeting with Iranian officials for the first time in Tehran to discuss the proposal.

Rights and Responsibilities

Iranian officials and negotiators have consistently misrepresented the aim of the United States and its negotiating partners as trying to deprive Iran of its "rights" to nuclear technology. In fact, the six countries have insisted all along that they recognize Iran's rights to a peaceful nuclear program, and have offered as part of their negotiation proposals technical and financial assistance for a nuclear energy program in Iran.

A sticking point has been the continuation of an Iranian enrichment program, which various Western P5+1 countries, at different points in time, have insisted must be halted indefinitely-rather than merely suspended until Iran meets certain conditions.

Tehran has used this implicit indefinite denial of enrichment as a way to divide the international community, suggesting that its rights are being violated if the world powers do not recognize an explicit right to such technology. This was one of Iran's preconditions at its last meeting with the P5+1 in January 2011 in Istanbul that contributed to scuttling those talks.

Yet Iran is seeking an explicit right to enrich uranium that does not exist. Although the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not prohibit countries from maintaining any specific nuclear technology that can be used for peaceful purposes, it does not grant an explicit right to the pursuit of certain nuclear technologies either.

Regardless, the IAEA Board of Governors has determined that Iran violated its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, in essence breaking the very condition on which its rights to peaceful nuclear technology are predicated.

The Issue of "Suspension"

What the P5+1 have formally called for and what the UN Security Council has required is that Iran suspend enrichment while long-term negotiations progress and until Iran can re-establish confidence that it is not seeking nuclear weapons through additional transparency measures and a full accounting of its nuclear history to the IAEA.

Even as some P5+1 members have been reluctant to publicly agree that Iran can enrich again at some point in the future, the group's comprehensive proposals have included a review mechanism for suspension-implicitly indicating that the suspension could be lifted at some point. In the U.S. political context, it is also important to recall that the 2006 and 2008 P5+1 proposals permitting eventual enrichment in Iran were agreed by the Bush administration, which had previously insisted on zero enrichment.

The Obama administration sought to capitalize on this position by making it clear to Iran in public that its arguments that its rights were being undercut were without merit. On March 1, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that "under very strict conditions" and "having responded to the international community's concerns," Iran would have a "right" to enrich uranium under IAEA inspections. This is consistent with the rights and responsibilities contained in the NPT.

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Ambassador Hossein Mousavian has suggested that, as part of a negotiated settlement, Tehran can agree to enrich consistent with its fuel needs. Such a commitment would entail a de facto suspension because of Iran's lack of near-term domestic fuel needs, but it would provide Iran with a way to rationalize such a halt without appearing to capitulate entirely.

It is important to remember in this context that Iran has no near-term need to enrich-even if one accepts its argument that it cannot rely on outside sources of nuclear fuel for its nuclear energy program-because Russia has provided the initial fuel for Iran's sole nuclear power reactor. And because Iran does not have sufficient domestic uranium reserves to fuel its ambitious nuclear power program, it will inevitably have to rely on other countries for fuel anyway, even if it carries out enrichment itself.

On the other hand, while a permanent uranium enrichment halt would be beneficial and very welcome, it is not necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Furthermore, a permanent halt is not realistic given the strong support for enrichment across the political spectrum in Iran. Tying enrichment amounts and levels to the actual needs of Iran's nuclear power plants might provide an acceptable compromise.

The fundamental question for Iran is whether it wants to maintain enrichment to protect its "rights" and to maintain its national pride, or if it wants to maintain and expand uranium enrichment (and other sensitive fuel cycle activities) to provide a path to nuclear weapons.

The broad proposals outlined by the P5+1 allow Iran to do the former, putting in place transparency measures and confidence-building steps to make it difficult to do the latter. It appears that Iran cannot yet decide that it simply wants to keep enrichment, but rather continues to desire a hedge in the form of a rapid capacity to make nuclear weapons.

If Iran is unwilling to agree to commonsense confidence building steps, Tehran will become increasingly isolated. But P5+1 leaders in Washington and other capitals must continue both tracks of their "dual-track policy" and keep testing Iran's willingness to change course by pursuing opportunities to engage Iran on the nuclear issue.--Peter Crail

* This is an update of an Iran Nuclear Brief first published Jan. 26, 2012.