By Kelsey Davenport
Career Ambassador Thomas Pickering said at a Feb. 25 Arms Control Association event that he would be “willing to put a little money” on progress toward a positive outcome in negotiations with Iran in 2013. After the conclusion of the Feb. 26-27 talks between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Ambassador Pickering’s odds may have just gotten a little better. There were two positive outcomes discernable from the early reporting out of Kazakhstan. First, the parties have agreed on the dates and venues for two more meetings, and second, the P5+1 demonstrated that it is willing to put more substantive sanctions relief on the table in return for Iranian concessions.
The parties announced that an experts meeting would convene in Istanbul on March 18, followed by another high-level political meeting on April 5-6 in Kazakhstan. Pickering stressed the importance of regular meetings in his Feb. 25 remarks, particularly at the experts level, saying that it would be “very helpful” for the experts to talk, and get a sense of Iran’s plan for its nuclear program and assess Iran’s actual need for low-enriched uranium. Pickering noted that one of the things that bothers the P5+1 the most is Iran’s “large accumulation of LEU with no apparent use for it.”
Perhaps even more significant are press reports that the revised P5+1 proposal presented to Iran during the Almaty talks contained sanctions relief beyond the spare aircraft parts that were put on the table in 2012. Sanctions relief on the table includes relaxing measures restricting the gold trade and dealings with the petrochemical industry, and some small-scale banking restrictions.
While sanctions relief could modestly help Iran’s economy, which has been hard hit by unilateral and international sanctions, the offer also carries important symbolic weight. Also speaking at ACA’s Feb. 25 event, former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian said that the view from Tehran is that “more sanctions and pressures” convince Iranians that the “U.S. is not ready for a serious genuine, meaningful talks.”
According to press reports, the proposal also somewhat relaxes the “stop, ship, shut” actions required from Iran in the 2012 proposal. The Almaty proposal requires Iran to suspend the production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, suspend operations at Fordow (Iran’s underground uranium enrichment facility) and ship part of its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 percent out of the country.
If these reports are correct, there are some small, but significant differences that could make this proposal more palatable to Iran, because they imply less of a “surrender” of the sovereign rights Tehran asserts it is entitled to under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. For one, it leaves open the possibility for enrichment at Fordow in the future. Additionally, the 2012 proposal required Iran to ship its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium out of the country; this revised version allows Tehran to keep a portion to manufacture fuel plates for medical isotope production at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent is a primary concern for the P5+1 because it is more easily enriched to weapons-grade than the 3.5 percent enriched uranium used in power reactors.
According to Mousavian, what the P5+1 is asking of Iran is not the problem. He said that “Iran has publically said, we are ready to stop 20 percent enrichment… and for any deal on the stockpiles.” The hang-up moving forward is that Iran does not view the sanctions relief offered thus far as reciprocal. To make progress, Mousavian said that sanctions relief can not just be about “targeted sanctions” like aircraft parts or easing restrictions on the gold trade. Mousavian said the P5+1 needs to offer a “strategic removal of sanctions” if they want Iran to make strategic concessions.
After over a decade of negotiations on Iran’s controversial nuclear program, an agreement is not likely to be made quickly or easily. Both sides must demonstrate flexibility and creativity to make progress.
One point worth considering the next time the parties meet on April 5-6 is the utility of a bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Iran. In fact, the Istanbul technical talks planned for March 18 may provide an opportunity to being moving in this direction. Both Pickering and Mousavian emphasized the need for U.S.-Iran bilateral talks. The P5+1 creates a “mutual reinforcement of excessive timidity,” according to Pickering, who also said that having the U.S. “actively at the table with Iran, with opportunities to speak frankly and informally in a bilateral context” would be helpful. Mousavian called the P5+1 format “dysfunctional” and that bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran would be the “best way and the shortest way” to make progress on the nuclear issue. Mousavian also noted that the U.S. and Iran share many common interests where they could “cooperate to create confidence.”
The full transcript of the Feb. 25 ACA event “Toward a Diplomatic Solution of the Iranian Nuclear Crisis: What Can be Achieved in 2013?” can be found here.