Senior-level talks on the Iran nuclear issue resume in Vienna this week amid a generally upbeat mood. The parties are rolling up their sleeves, staffing their teams and getting to grips with key issues.
Long gone are the trying talks of the past: the frustrating spring 2012 meetings in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow during which Iran’s chief negotiator, the dreary Saeed Jalili, began every session with a sanctimonious sermon. President Hassan Rouhani’s team gets right to the point. The negotiating parties still do not have mutual trust, said an insider at a recent IISS workshop, but they have mutual respect.
The issue is no longer whether Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium; it is how much, based on Iran’s practical need for enriched uranium. Questions concerning quantity are inherently negotiable.
Similarly, on the issue of the Arak research reactor, Iran has already agreed, in principle, that the design could be adjusted to reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium that could be produced. Lowering the power of what is now designed to be a 40 megawatts (thermal) reactor won’t be enough to satisfy policymakers in key Western capitals. They want the reactor converted to use light water (which is to say, regular water) as a moderator and coolant, though they may be willing to allow heavy water to be used as a reflector. Making use of Iran’s heavy water could be a face-saving compromise. Again, such details are negotiable.
The greatest convergence between the parties is over verification. Since the days of his election campaign, Rouhani has been ready to accept greater transparency. The increased tempo and scope of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections spelled out in the 24 November Joint Plan of Action is one reason I called it a surprisingly good deal.
The comprehensive deal that is supposed to be negotiated by 20 July will require yet more transparency. If the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ever decides to reverse his fatwas against nuclear weapons and to break out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the production of highly enriched uranium would more likely take place at a clandestine facility rather than at a declared site that is visited near-daily by inspectors. This is why the IAEA needs to be able to visit undeclared sites that it has reasonable grounds to suspect.
The safeguards Additional Protocol, which Iran provisionally accepted in 2003 but dropped two years later, goes part way towards allowing for such inspections. In Tehran, the Additional Protocol is imbued with too many negative connotations for Iran’s negotiators to easily agree to sign up to it again, but they are willing to accept some of its provisions, as long as they are not labelled as such.
So why am I still pessimistic about the prospects for a final deal? Because for confidence that Iran could not rapidly break out of the NPT, the West needs both intrusive inspections and strict limits on the state’s sensitive nuclear activities for a sustained period of time. Regarding the limits, I am on record as arguing that the break-out period (the time it would take Iran to make a weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium using the material and equipment it is known to have), which might now be a couple of months, needs to be extended to at least six months. This would mean no more than about 4,000 centrifuges, or one-quarter of those in place today. But the United States, the United Kingdom and their partners say the allowable break-out period should be measured in years – that’s years plural – which would require still deeper cuts.
Given Iran’s insistence that it will not dismantle any of its nuclear equipment, I see no chance that it would accept the sharp limits that would be required to extend the break-out period this far. Nor is it at all likely that Iran will accept limits that last decades – again, note the plural – as called for by the West.
I am even more pessimistic about the parties reaching a comprehensive agreement because of the potential for disunity among the E3+3 on account of the Ukraine crisis. So far, Russia has not broken ranks in the Iran talks. But the Iranians now have more reason to wait out the six powers, in the expectation that the fall-out from Crimea will make the Russians more willing to strike a side deal. Also, the Russians will now be less likely to agree to a final deal that requires them to make any sacrifices. For example, at the recent IISS workshop mentioned above, it was suggested that in order to entice Iran to ship out its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, Russia could train Iranian engineers in fabricating fuel for nuclear power reactors. This would mean fewer future Russian nuclear-fuel sales to Iran. Given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s combative impulses, this is now less likely.
Six weeks ago, I predicted that the chances of the parties striking a final deal was no more than 10%. After Russia’s intervention in Crimea, I am bumping that number down a bit.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.