By Daryl G. Kimball and Greg Thielmann
After a 15-month hiatus, the P5+1 and Iran will finally meet again to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program on Saturday, April 14 in Istanbul.
Iran’s diplomatic encounter with the six powers – China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the United States – will occur at a time of dramatically increased economic pressure on Iran from sanctions and against the backdrop of loose talk about counterproductive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. Both sides need to make the most of the upcoming talks.
At such a time, it is more important than ever to address urgent priorities in order to make progress towards achieving long-term goals. Iran continues to improve its uranium enrichment capabilities and already has some of the materials and expertise needed to build nuclear weapons. But Tehran’s progress toward exercising a nuclear weapons option can be slowed and ultimately reversed.
Toward a Serious, Sustained Dialogue
Resolving the nuclear impasse will be exceedingly difficult and will not be accomplished in one meeting. There is an enormous deficit of trust between the sides and the political atmosphere in both Washington and Tehran conspire against offering the compromises that will be necessary.
A sustained, serious dialogue will be needed, consisting of high-level and technical meetings on a multilateral and bilateral basis. The best way to get this process underway is to focus on smaller, achievable steps, which address the highest priority proliferation risks. This would buy time for the larger and more ambitious steps ultimately required to convince Iran it is in its interests not to pursue nuclear weapons and to limit its options to do so.
Halting Enrichment Beyond Normal Fuel-Grade
The first priority must be to halt and reverse Iran’s accumulation of 20%-enriched uranium, which has the potential of significantly shortening the time Tehran would require to build nuclear weapons if it decided to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
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 its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and an agreement not to pursue an additional round of UN sanctions.
There appear to be divisions within the Iranian leadership about just how far they are willing to press for continuing with enrichment at the 20% level and whether they should embrace a revised version of the TRR fuel swap concept.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbassi, said Monday that Iran would produce 20%-enriched uranium based on Iran’s fuel “needs.”
If Iran received fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, its needs for medical isotope production would be met for the next decade. Such an arrangement would establish a principle that Iran would not enrich beyond normal-reactor grade of about 4% as a first step toward restricting Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful uses. The principle that Iran would only enrich according to its fuel needs could be further built upon to address its enrichment program as a whole.
An April 8 report in The New York Times suggested that the opening U.S. position would include a demand that Iran also agree immediately to close its second enrichment facility, which is underground at Fordow.
Achieving this goal would of course be very useful, but is probably a “bridge too far ”at least in this initial phase of renewed talks.
As former intelligence analyst Paul Pillar persuasively argues, “insisting[ing] on holding Iranian nuclear facilities hostage to armed attack…does not give [Iranian leaders] much incentive to move toward an agreement.
The Fordow plant is currently geared toward enriching uranium to 20%. If Iran agrees to halt that activity then Fordow will have lost its current primary purpose and it will be easier to seek the permanent stoppage of all enrichment activities at the facility down the road.
Better IAEA Access; Full Iranian Cooperation with the Agency
Another key objective in the near-term should be to improve Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While an agreement by Iran to halt certain nuclear activities is important, getting agreement for greater transparency over Iran’s nuclear program should also be part of the discussion.
Tehran also needs to be convinced to finally start addressing the agency’s questions about its weapons-related work at key sites, including Parchin, which the agency and Tehran have been haggling over in recent weeks. These measures would reduce the risk of clandestine nuclear work and reduce the risk to Iran of even tighter international sanctions.
The Best Option on the Table
Responsible leaders in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere understand that sanctions have bought time and improved negotiating leverage, but will not, in isolation, persuade Tehran’s leaders to halt their sensitive nuclear activities.
International pressure on Iran is at an all-time high and has been made possible because of the Obama administration’s willingness to engage Iran. That unity and pressure will be put at risk if Washington and its P5+1 partners do not fully explore and pursue the diplomatic option.
Contrary to myth, pursuing negotiations with Iran does not allow Iran to “buy time” for its nuclear pursuits. International and national sanctions will remain in place until and unless Iran takes the steps necessary to provide confidence it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.
Serious international leaders also understand that the “military option” would be ineffective and counterproductive. Air strikes on Iran’s facilities would set back Iran’s program for no more than a couple of years, convince its leaders to pursue nuclear weapons openly, and lead to adverse economic and security consequences.
There is no guarantee that diplomacy and pressure will be effective in convincing Iran’s current and future leaders they stand to gain more from forgoing nuclear weapons than from any decision to build them. But it’s the best option on the table and should be pursued with patience and determination.