Iran nuclear negotiations: The final stretch?

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Nuclear weapons once again see the headlines this week as the international community observes the E3+3 (Also referred to as the P5+1: United States, United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and Germany) and Iran meet this week in Vienna. This is a last effort to bring the Iran nuclear negotiations to a successful conclusion by next Monday, November 24, the second putative deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement.

Negotiators are focusing upon the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges Iran will operate for the period of the agreement, the nature of the inspections regime at its nuclear sites, the length of time the agreement will be in place, and the level of sanctions relief. Iran wants to protect its rights to industrial levels of enrichment beyond its current capabilities when it has a need for it, while the E3+3 want reductions. The June 2013 election of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who had pledged to revive Iran’s sanctions-smashed economy, was a turning point on the nuclear issue but progress has been elusive since an interim deal came into effect in January 2014.

The E3+3 states argue that Iran has neither a compelling need for indigenous industrial-scale enrichment in the near future, nor does it have the technical knowhow and intellectual property licenses to safely and legally produce the proprietary fuel for its existing or planned reactors.

Russia and Iran completed a breakthrough agreement on November 11th to build two new reactors at Bushehr alongside the existing Russian-built power station, with the intention of building another two later, and four at other undisclosed locations. This could benefit the talks, as the involvement of Russia in Iran’s nuclear programme and its conditions that involve it supplying the fuel for the new reactors could mitigate against an Iranian need for domestic fuel production. Russia strengthens its stake in stabilizing the industry, gains influence and money. Iran gets to retain an ambitious civilian nuclear program, which it insists is for energy and medical sectors.

In terms of sanctions relief, Iran wants the UN Security Council sanctions to be among the first to go, as that would symbolize the end of Iran’s pariah status. The United States opposes this because re-imposing such sanctions would almost certainly require a new vote at the UN that would give Russia a veto. They question Iran’s track record on transparency, cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and compliance with international safeguards. The IAEA’s latest report on Iran, published in September, suggests that Iran still misses deadlines regarding IAEA inspections and implementation of measures.

The E3+3 will be looking for Iran to ratify an Additional Protocol to their Safeguards Agreement to boost the agency’s ability to detect undeclared nuclear activities, including those with no connection to the civil fuel cycle. Under the Additional Protocol, a state is “required to provide the IAEA with broader information covering all aspects of its nuclear fuel cycle-related activities, including research and development and uranium mining”, and broader Agency access rights and permission to use its most advances verification technologies. It also includes short notice inspections on sites, access to other nuclear-related locations and the collection of environment samples beyond declared locations by the Agency. In Iran’s case it will also involve declarations on development and production of related sensitive technologies, such as centrifuges used for uranium enrichment.

The Additional Protocol is not a requirement for NPT states, but its implementation is pivotal for credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities within the country. It points to the real sticking points of these talks that go way beyond any technical solutions. How can Iran credibly assure the international community of the peaceful nature of its programme, whilst also developing a full-fledged domestic nuclear fuel cycle it deems essential and that it has a right to develop, and to demonstrate full independence of action? Any resolution of these talks will require negotiators and their governments not only to understand the constraints and interests of those on the other side of the table, but to recognize that the interests of all sides lie in partially meeting the interests of all parties.

It is important to preserve the forward momentum if the hopes for a comprehensive permanent agreement are to be kept alive. A failure to reach some sort of an accord by Monday would be tragic. Such an outcome would weaken the position of President Rouhani, who has taken huge political risks for an agreement. We could see additional sanctions being imposed by the US Congress in January, and decisions taken by the Iranian government to expand the nuclear programme. It will also place further pressures on the cohesion of the E3+3. Other Middle East states particularly in the Gulf would likely step up the development of their own indigenous technologies, increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in the region and severely threatening regional stability.

For almost a year, Iran has adhered to an interim agreement that froze and rolled back its nuclear programme, demonstrating the value of agreements to contain the spread of proliferation-related technologies. A more permanent agreement will involve compromise, but the alternative is bleak indeed.

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