As the prospects of a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—brightens, Washington’s hawks seem to have gone into panic mode. They do not seem to want any agreement unless Iran says “uncle,” gives up its sovereignty and national rights within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and completely dismantles its nuclear infrastructure. They’re asking Iran to capitulate, not to negotiate. That’s an unrealistic goal—and in their dogged pursuit of it, they have overlooked serious steps Tehran’s taken that demonstrate a desire for compromise.
We see this unfortunate dynamic in an article this month by Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, published in the National Interest. Dubowitz’s main premise is that it was the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies that brought Iran to the negotiation table, and only more economic sanctions will induce it to surrender. The premise is false. While the sanctions did play a role, they were not the most important reason, or even one of the primary ones. Iran is negotiating because that is what it has wanted—contrary to Dubowitz’s assertion that “Iran does not appear to be ready to compromise.”
President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and their diplomatic team have always been interested in a compromise. Between February 2003 and August 2005, Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator under former president Mohammad Khatami. Zarif was the senior diplomat taking part in the negotiations between Iran and three European Union powers, Britain, France and Germany (the EU3). At that time, Iran proposed to limit the number of its centrifuges to three thousand, put Iran’s nuclear program under strict inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and impose other limitations. In return, Iran asked only for security guarantees by the United States and the EU3. The proposal was rejected by the George W. Bush administration and the EU3.
Earlier, in May 2003, the Khatami administration had proposed a comprehensive plan for addressing all the major issues between Iran and the U.S., including strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program. But, that proposal too was rejected by the Bush-Cheney team that was still drunk on “mission accomplished” nonsense, and less than a year prior had been crowing that “real men go to Tehran.” The opportunity slipped away.
Since Rouhani and his team have long been interested in a compromise, it’s no surprise that they’re seeking one again. But the facts on the ground have changed since 2003. So have Iran’s conditions for a compromise. Whereas Iran did not have a single centrifuge operating in 2003-2005, it now has nearly ten thousand centrifuges spinning and producing low-enriched uranium, with another ten thousand centrifuges waiting to be started. The Rouhani administration will not go back to its 2003 proposal. In fact, even if President Rouhani did want the same deal, Tehran’s hardliners would immediately impeach him. But Iran has stated repeatedly that it could live with an agreement whereby Iran’s current operating centrifuges will continue to work, but no new centrifuges will be installed for the duration of the agreement. Iran’s desire for a deal is genuine.
Dubowitz also suggests that the U.S. has made all sorts of concessions to Iran, that even “the goalposts [of a final deal] appear to be moving,” while Iran has held fast. This is completely false. In fact, Iran has made five major concessions.
One is agreeing to limit the number of its centrifuges for the duration of the comprehensive agreement. By doing so, Iran has temporarily given up its rights under the NPT—that treaty imposes no limit on the number of centrifuges that a member state can have, so long as they are under IAEA inspections and for peaceful purposes.
The second concession is about Iran’s uranium enrichment facility built under a mountain in Fordow, near the holy city of Qom. It was a thorny issue for a long time. The United States had demanded that Iran dismantle the facility altogether. The facility is, however, suited neither for military purposes nor large-scale industrial use. It was built by Iran to preserve its indigenous enrichment technology in case the larger Natanz enrichment facility was destroyed by bombing—a threat that multiple states have made. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and a principal nuclear negotiator, has emphasized repeatedly and emphatically, “Iran would not agree to close any of its nuclear facilities.” Iran has agreed to convert the site to a nuclear research facility, representing a major concession.
Iran’s third concession is about the IR-40 heavy water nuclear reactor, under construction in Arak. When completed, it will replace the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a forty-seven-year-old reactor that produces medical isotopes for close to one million Iranian patients every year. The U.S. had demanded that Iran convert the IR-40 to a light-water reactor, due to the concerns that the reactor, when it comes online, will produce plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons. But Iran refused to go along. Why? Because, first and foremost, all the work on the reactor has been done by Iranian experts and thus the reactor is a source of national pride. Second, Iran has already spent billions of dollars to design and begin constructing the reactor, and the West is not willing to share the cost of the reactor conversion to a light-water one. On its own initiative, Iran has agreed to modify the design of the reactor so that it will produce much smaller amounts of plutonium. Iran has also agreed not to build any reprocessing facility for separating the plutonium from the rest of the nuclear waste.
The fourth concession is agreeing to stop enriching uranium to 19.75 percent (commonly referred to as 20 percent in the Western media, although the seemingly minor difference is actually quite important). In 2009, the IAEA, under pressure from the West, refused to supply Iran with fuel for the TRR, in violation of its obligations. Thus, Iran was forced to begin producing the 19.75 percent uranium that the TRR uses as its fuel. Tehran agreed to stop producing the fuel, however, and has done so.
Iran’s fifth major concession is related to the issue of inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities by the IAEA. Iran has almost completely lived up to its obligations under its original safeguards agreement with the Agency, signed in 1974. But IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, whose politicized leadership has contributed to the complexities of reaching an agreement, has insisted that Iran allow many more inspections. The demanded visits include nonnuclear sites, which would be tantamount to implementing the provisions of the Additional Protocol (AP) of the safeguards agreement. Iran signed the AP in 2003 and, without its parliament ratifying it, implemented it voluntarily until February 2006. Then, Iran set aside the AP after the EU3 reneged on promises made to Iran in the Sa’dabad Declaration of October 2003 and the Paris Agreement of November 2004. But, Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement in November 2013 and another one last May, according to which Iran allows much more frequent and intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities. Such visits are way beyond Iran’s legal obligations under its safeguards agreement. Since then, the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed that Iran has lived up to most of its obligations under the additional agreement.
Most importantly, Iran recently invited the IAEA to visit the Marivan site in the province of Kordestan in western Iran. In its November 2011 report, the IAEA had alleged that Iran might have carried out experiments with nonnuclear high explosives in Marivan that are used for triggering nuclear reactions. But, the IAEA turned down the invitation, presumably because it is unsure of its own information.
What has the United States given in return for these major concessions by Iran? Very little. It has released a small amount of Iran’s own money, frozen in foreign banks as the result of the illegal sanctions. The U.S. has also lifted its (also illegal!) ban on the export of petrochemical products and a few other minor items. As President Obama stated, 95 percent of all the sanctions are still in place.
In his article Dubowitz also claims that Ayatollah Khamenei “has made it clear that any deal Tehran signs must not cross ‘his red lines,’ which include increasing Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity to nineteen times what it is today.” This is a misrepresentation. What Khamenei was referring to was Iran’s eventual enrichment capacity in the relatively distant future. This capacity is to be achieved after the expiration of the comprehensive agreement when Iran’s nuclear program will be free of limitations.
Dubowitz also states a discredited story. Specifically, he refers to “cheating” by Iran after the November 2013 Geneva Accord was signed. What is the alleged cheating about? The IAEA had reported that Iran “had ‘intermittently’ been feeding natural uranium gas into a single so-called IR-5 centrifuge at a research facility.” IR-5 is a more advanced version of Iran’s currently operating centrifuges. David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, had interpreted it as “cheating” by Iran. The reality is that the Geneva Accord and its Joint Plan of Action permit Iran to continue its research on more advanced centrifuges. Iran’s obligation, which it has lived by, is not installing such centrifuges. After this was pointed out, Albright retreated, declaring that the test was in violation of the “spirit” of the Accord. Who is moving whose goalposts, again?