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The Key to Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

It seems increasingly likely that we will see another round of nuclear diplomacy with Iran in September.  This round will probably include discussions with the “Vienna Group” (the United States, Russia, and France) at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) in light of the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration announced in Tehran on May 17.  It will probably include as well another go between Iranian negotiators and representatives of the P-5+1; precedent suggests that this meeting would take place in Geneva, but the Iranians are currently proposing Turkey as an alternative location, which could also facilitate Turkish and Brazilian participation in the talks.

As we look toward these discussions, senior Iranian officials — including Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi — are reiterating that Tehran would be prepared to discontinue enriching uranium at the nearly-20 percent level required to fabricate fuel for the TRR, if the international community accepts the Joint Declaration and new fuel is provided for the TRR.  Predictably, “U.S. and European diplomats” are telling Western journalists that recent imposition of new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, by the United Nations Security Council, the United States, and the European Union (EU), has prompted Tehran’s willingness to return to the negotiating table and consider stopping enrichment at the near-20 percent level.

As we noted previously, this seems to be “another (seemingly willful) misreading of the Iranian position,” as the Iranians have always linked their pursuit of enrichment to the near-20 percent level to the international community’s failure to come through, in a credible and timely way, on cooperation with Tehran to refuel the TRR.  But the view that sanctions are compelling significant concessions from the Iranian side is not just a misreading of the situation.  If this assessment is taken seriously as the basis for formulating Western negotiating strategy for the next round of nuclear talks with Iran, it will doom these talks to failure.

As has been the case for several years, the key to successful nuclear diplomacy with the Islamic Republic is the willingness of the United States and its European partners to accept internationally safeguarded uranium enrichment on Iranian territory as an indispensable part of any nuclear “deal.”

To understand this argument, it is important to recall some relevant history.  The TRR issue arose in the first place because, in June 2009 (before the Islamic Republic’s last presidential election), Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA sent a letter to the Agency’s then-Director General, Mohammed ElBaradei, requesting assistance in finding a vendor to supply new fuel for the TRR.  Iranian officials have explained to us how this letter, requesting to purchase new fuel for the TRR — as the Islamic Republic had done almost 25 years before — was intended as a confidence-building measure (CBM, in the lingo of arms control).  From Tehran’s perspective, if Iran were able to purchase new fuel for the TRR from abroad, it would not need to pursue enrichment at the nearly-20 percent level (which, though still classified as low-level enrichment under the NPT, is more problematic from the perspective of non-proliferation fundamentalists).

When we met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York in September 2009 (Ahmadinejad was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly), he emphasized the potential value of international cooperation to refuel the TRR as a “CBM.”  Ahmadinejad, however, made clear that, if such cooperation, in the form of a straightforward and thoroughly safeguarded commercial deal for new fuel, were not available, the Islamic Republic would consider enriching uranium to the requisite level and trying to make the fuel itself.

But, rather than take the opportunity offered by the original Iranian letter to the IAEA, the Obama Administration decided to put forward its own proposal as a “test” for Tehran.  Under this proposal — engineered from the White House by the National Security Council’s nonproliferation “czar,” Gary Samore — Iran would “swap” roughly 75 percent of its then-current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for new fuel for the TRR.  The Obama Administration and its partners wanted to use a fuel “swap” to extract enough of Iran’s then-current LEU stockpile from Iranian control to preclude even a theoretical possibility of nuclear “breakout” by the Islamic Republic for at least a year.

Some commentators have suggested that the “swap” idea was a major concession on the Obama Administration’s part, in that it “implied” an acceptance of uranium enrichment on Iranian territory.  But this view is simply incorrect.  In the Obama Administration’s public presentation of the proposal, the roughly one-year, “breakout-free” window that a swap deal would have provided would have been used to explore with the Iranians, through negotiations, whether a larger agreement on nuclear issues was possible.

The critical reality, however, was that Obama Administration officials wanted to use the one-year window to see if it was possible to reach consensus among themselves about fundamental questions of Iran policy — including the acceptability of carefully monitored uranium enrichment in Iran.

At the October 1, 2009 meeting of the P-5+1 with a senior Iranian delegation headed by Saeed Jalili, secretary-general of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council, in Geneva — a meeting which included a 45-minute one-on-one session between Jalili and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns — the Iranians were not provided with any assurances that the “swap” proposal implied acceptance of the legitimacy of uranium enrichment on Iranian territory.  Nevertheless, the Iranians accepted the idea of a swap in principle, subject to follow-on technical discussions.

At these follow-on discussions in Vienna and subsequently, the Iranians wanted to negotiate on specific details of the “swap” proposal, which was formalized by the IAEA’s Nobel Prize-winning then-Director General, Mohammed ElBaradei, as we have extensively documented and analyzed since October.  Among other things, the Iranians indicated a willingness to “escrow” their LEU in Turkey, pending delivery of finished new fuel for the TRR, in December 2009.  But, under domestic and Israeli pressure, the Obama Administration turned Baradei’s “swap” proposal into a “take it or leave it” proposition — something that Baradei himself says should not have been done.

Moreover, the Administration continued to withhold any signal to Iran on the crucial enrichment issue.  Unable to confront the dysfunctionality of its own policy, the Obama Administration effectively cut off prospects for further nuclear discussions at the end of 2009.  Instead, the Administration began a months-long diplomatic campaign to push a fourth, watered-down resolution imposing sanctions on Iran through the United Nations Security Council — which it had determined would be necessary before any further talks with Iran could continue.

In the meantime, by not bargaining with Iran, the Western powers handed Tehran the perfect justification to start enriching to higher levels.  This, of course, is precisely what Tehran did, starting in February 2010.  The historical record strongly suggests that Iran did not take the decision to pursue higher-level enrichment in a serious and sustained way until its option for an acceptable deal on refueling the TRR with the Vienna Group had been put in serious doubt.

It was at this juncture that Brazil and Turkey stepped up their own (by then largely coordinated) diplomatic efforts with Iran over the TRR issue.  But, by the time that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put themselves forward as potential brokers for a fuel-swap deal, the Obama Administration was not genuinely interested in reaching a deal with Tehran.

Instead, the Administration decided to keep previous commitments extracted from it by Israel, the U.S. Congress, and important pro-Israel interest groups in Washington to move ahead with a new sanctions resolution — these domestic political demands meant that new sanctions were, in effect, a prerequisite for any further talks with Iran.

The Obama Administration cynically insisted that Brazil and Turkey include provisions in any deal they might broker with Tehran which U.S. officials assumed would trigger an Iranian rejection.  Some Administration officials even calculated that, when the Brazilians and Turks “struck out” in Tehran, it would then be possible to leverage them into supporting the new sanctions in the Security Council.

Ultimately, of course, the Iranians accepted the terms President Obama spelled out in a letter to his Brazilian counterpart in April 2010.  Turkey agreed to serve as the repository for Iran’s LEU for one year pending the delivery of new fuel for the TRR; furthermore, Turkey committed that, if the new fuel were not provided in accordance with the agreed terms, it would return the LEU to Iran — an important assurance for Tehran.

But there was an important additional element, agreed to by the Brazilians and the Turks in the Joint Declaration: the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal announced on May 17, 2010 had, as its very first substantive point, a forthright acknowledgement that the Islamic Republic has the “right” to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”  This is a critical new element in the multilateral diplomacy surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities.  In the face of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that the Islamic Republic suspend all uranium enrichment, Tehran wants its right to enrich acknowledged as an essential condition for progress toward a larger nuclear deal.

Obama and his senior advisers were caught flat-footed by the Joint Declaration; the Obama Administration immediately rejected the agreement that Lula and Erdoğan had negotiated with the Iranians (a deal which met all of the criteria spelled out in Obama’s letter to Lula) and accelerated work on a new sanctions resolution that would be adopted by the United Nations Security Council in June 2010.  Remarkably, Iran, Turkey, and Brazil have worked to keep the Joint Declaration alive as a potential opening for further nuclear diplomacy, even after the Security Council adopted Resolution 1929.

Now that there appears to be a serious prospect for renewed negotiations over the TRR issue, the Iranians have reiterated what has been their position from the outset — that they would pursue higher-level enrichment if they believed they did not have a genuine option for obtaining new fuel for the TRR from international providers; if they could obtain new fuel on a reasonable basis, there would be no need for undertaking higher-level enrichment.  This Iranian position is not new, and it is not the product of sanctions.

Moreover, by saying that Iran will stop enriching at higher levels if it is provided with new fuel for the TRR and the Joint Declaration is accepted by the international community, senior Iranian officials are indicating — as they have for some time — that acceptance of internationally safeguarded enrichment inside Iran remains an indispensable part of any larger diplomatic solution to the nuclear deal.  The Obama Administration has yet to come to terms with this reality.  The United Kingdom remains implacably opposed to enrichment on Iranian soil.  France, which was drawn into supporting the original “swap” proposal advanced by the Obama Administration, now seems to be retreating; diplomats familiar with the Vienna Group discussions say that France now claims that it would actually take considerably longer than a year to produce finished fuel for the TRR and that the Iranians would probably end up getting less fuel than originally envisioned.

In our conversations with them, Iranian officials have consistently indicated that acceptance of safeguarded enrichment in Iran would open up possibilities for cooperative solutions to other contentious issues in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear diplomacy with the world’s major powers — including ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  But, if Western officials delude themselves that sanctions are “working” and that this gives them the chance to “squeeze” Iran in the upcoming round while “fudging” on the larger issue of enrichment, they will blow yet another opportunity to put relations with the Islamic Republic on a more positive, and certainly less dangerous, trajectory.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 2 August 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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