Will Iran Play Ball in Nuke Talks?

Although both President Obama and Rouhani face opposition at home, the domestic obstacles are more formidable on the Iranian side.

Negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program have become hostage to sharp internal divisions within Iran.  Unless Supreme Leader Khamenei throws his weight behind the adjustments in Iran’s negotiating positions that are necessary to reach a compromise with the P5+1 countries, there will be no agreement.

An intensive round of talks is taking place this week in Geneva, with a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, bilateral meetings between U.S. and Iranian delegations at the political directors level, and multilateral talks between the P5+1 countries and Iran. Having failed to reach agreement on a comprehensive deal by November 24th, when the first extension of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action expired, the parties agreed on a second extension and are now aiming to resolve major political issues by March and to finalize the deal, including technical annexes, by late June.

While incremental progress was made during 2014, substantial gaps remain between Iran and the P5+1 on fundamental issues, especially Iran’s permitted enrichment capacity and the duration of the agreement.

A critical U.S. goal in the negotiations is to reduce Iran’s current centrifuge enrichment capacity to the point where it would take Iran at least one year – if it decided to break out of the agreement – to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon.  Achieving a one-year breakout time would require substantial cuts in both the current number of operating centrifuges and the amount of low-enriched uranium located in Iran.  To build international confidence in Iran’s peaceful intentions, the United States believes that an agreement should have a duration of 15 to 20 years.  And to deter and detect any covert nuclear activities, Washington requires rigorous monitoring measures that go beyond the IAEA’s Additional Protocol.

Iran’s negotiating position is largely driven by its declared goal of achieving an industrial-scale enrichment capacity (more than ten times its current operational capacity), which Iranians claim they need as soon as 2021 in order to produce fuel for the Russian-supplied Bushehr nuclear power reactor.  In support of that goal, Iran has opposed all but token reductions in its current centrifuge capacity, and it has called for a short-duration agreement (five to seven years) that would allow it to ramp up its enrichment program to industrial scale at a relatively early date.  Moreover, while agreeing to adhere to the Additional Protocol, it has resisted IAEA access to its military installations (which is provided for in the Additional Protocol) and has been reluctant to accept monitoring measures that go beyond the Additional Protocol.

The United States has made substantial concessions on the enrichment issue, first moving from a ban on enrichment to allowing a small enrichment program and later from a small number of centrifuges to a significantly higher number.  It also agreed that once the agreement expires, Iran would be free to proceed with its enrichment program in a manner and pace of its own choosing.

With the compromises the P5+1 are prepared to accept on the enrichment issue, Iran would be in a strong position to pursue its civil nuclear energy plans.  It would have sufficient enrichment capacity to produce fuel for the reactors it intends to build for research and medical isotope production.  It could extend it fuel-supply contract with Russia beyond 2021 and continue importing fuel rods for Bushehr and any additional power reactors it acquires.  Once the comprehensive deal expires, it would be able to increase its enrichment capacity to industrial scale.

Moreover, the P5+1 countries seem willing to cooperate with Iran in the civil nuclear field, including in such areas as modification of the Arak reactor, design and fueling of a new light-water research reactor, and even in planning the construction of an indigenously-designed Iranian power reactor.  While the P5+1 proposals would lengthen Iran’s preferred timeline for achieving an industrial-scale capability, the delay would be justified by the benefits of cooperation with the advanced nuclear powers and by the additional time it would give Iran to master key technologies.  If Tehran is truly interested in having an advanced nuclear energy program, the compromises offered by the P5+1 make good sense.

But Iran has hardly budged on enrichment.  While it has been prepared to discuss readily-reversible modifications of its centrifuge program that would only slightly reduce its existing enrichment capacity, it has not been willing to scale back its centrifuge capability sufficiently to make a compromise possible.  Given that its inefficient first-generation centrifuges will have to be phased out before long, this refusal to accept a reduction in existing capability seems less a reflection of Iran’s technical requirements than a reaction to domestic political pressures not to “retreat” in any aspect of its program.