Iran Update: Number 158

  • Verdict on first round of talks between P5+1 and Iran broadly positive; second round confirmed
  • Countries forced to ‘substantially’ cut down oil imports from Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions; Obama orders technology sanctions against Iran
  • Arrests made in connection to assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists
  • Iran extracts data from U.S. drone; announces plan to develop its own drone
  • Iranian regional diplomacy

Verdict on first round of talks between P5+1 and Iran broadly positive; second round confirmed

Despite low expectations, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program on April 14th in Istanbul offered signs of progress, with follow-on talks scheduled for May 23rd in Baghdad. EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton announced on behalf of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1) that the day-long talks were “constructive and useful”, and added, “we want now to move to a sustained process of dialogue.” The optimism has primarily arisen from Iran’s apparent willingness to discuss the possibility of limiting its uranium enrichment program.

Baroness Ashton has suggested that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Iran’s compliance with the Treaty will constitute the ‘centrepiece’ of the next round of meetings. The United States is pushing to discuss Iran’s 20% enriched uranium stockpile – an issue central to placating Israel - though Iran asserts that it has the right to enrich uranium up to 20% under the NPT, stressing that it should be able to “enjoy rights in parallel with [its] obligations". A great deal hinges on the outcome of the next round of talks. Obama has warned that ''the window for diplomacy is closing” and Iran will need to take swift and concrete steps if it wishes to halt sanctions and avoid military conflict.

Saeed Jalili, head of the Iranian delegation, requested that sanctions be lifted prior to the second round of talks, on the basis of Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA. Iranian officials will hold their next meeting with the IAEA on May 13-14 as part of efforts to address possible military dimensions related to the nuclear program. However, the last round of meetings between Iran and the Agency was unsuccessful. On April 26, state news agency IRNA reported that Iran might ratify the Additional Protocol, in tandem with a deal struck under a Russian proposal. This would allow for wider inspections of nuclear-related facilities.

Despite Russia’s support of a gesture of goodwill in which sanctions would be gradually eased, other members of the whole group of six deemed the move to be premature. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague communicated his scepticism of Iran’s intentions as he recalled how weaker sanctions had no effect in suppressing the Iranian nuclear program in the past, and asserted that it is precisely the “intensification of sanctions” that has brought on this turn of events, rendering their maintenance invaluable as a bargaining tool in future talks. Baroness Ashton’s affirmation of Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program and recent reports coming from the United States suggests that the continuation of a low-level enrichment program under full compliance of IAEA regulations could be discussed in the next round of talks, marks a possible new chapter in Western strategy.

It remains to be seen to what extent negotiations can deepen without direct cooperation between the United States and Iran. Israel remains critical of the talks and of Iran’s cooperation, accusing Washington of giving Iran a free pass to continue its enrichment program. The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has issued a statement dismissing the talks and suggesting that they would be insufficient to prevent Israel from launching a military strike against Iran.

 

Countries forced to ‘substantially’ cut down oil imports from Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions; Obama orders technology sanctions against Iran

The U.S. and EU oil embargo does not come into full effect until July 1st, but has already begun to hit the Iranian economy. The price of Iranian crude oil has taken a sharp downturn as Iran seeks new markets. A U.S. Energy Information Administration report issued at the end of April suggested that world oil supplies would be substantial enough to overcome the negative impacts from the full implementation of the sanctions. Countries such as Singapore, the Philippines, and Turkey have been forced to cut down on imports from Iran to prevent their banks from being blocked from U.S. markets. China’s oil imports from Iran have consistently declined over the last four months, but is still likely to be hit itself by sanctions; the United States is demanding a detailed long-term plan of how China will further decrease its consumption of Iranian oil. India is also struggling with U.S. policy. Indian Ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao, has met with President Obama this month to attempt to resolve any miscommunication over the issue and India’s stance; both sides fear it may damage the strategic partnership.

Iranian officials have in response threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil travels, threatening a spike in the price of oil. The G20’s finance ministers in Washington in April agreed to keep a close watch on oil prices and take “additional action” if necessary.

New U.S.-ordered sanctions against Iran and Syria came into effect on April 23rd, designed to target individuals and entities that use technology, such as the Internet, social media, and mobile phones to aid authoritarian regimes in oppressing citizens. In an announcement at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, President Obama identified Iran’s record of human rights violations as further evidence of Iran’s incapacity to be trusted with a nuclear weapon: “When faced with a regime that threatens global security and denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel, the United States will do everything in its power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon”.

On April 22nd, a virus attack on the Iranian Oil Ministry and National Oil Company’s communication and computer systems forced Iran to temporarily shut off the Internet for a number of oil facilities including for its main oil export terminal. The virus echoed Stuxnet, a worm that attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities two years ago - with Israel and the United States having been primary suspects.

 

Arrests made in connection to assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists

In connection with a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists over the last five years, Iran announced on April 10th the arrest of a “terrorist team” of fifteen Iranians and foreign nationals, which Iran believes is linked to Israel. Israel has not denied a role in the assassination in January of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, the fifth scientist to be killed. In March, two U.S. officials identified the People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) as the group responsible. The PMOI have allegedly been trained and financed by the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and some members may have been trained by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and benefited from U.S. intelligence, according to a former U.S. general and a former senior U.S. intelligence official. However, the United States has vehemently denied involvement in the actions of the group itself.

Fereydoon Abbasi, current head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, survived an assassination attempt on November 29, 2010. He has recently been appointed to the position of commander of the Crisis Management Center for Nuclear and Radiation Accidents.

 

Iran extracts data from U.S. drone, announces plan to develop its own drone

After a U.S. surveillance drone crashed on Iranian territory last December, Iran rejected the U.S. request for its return and claimed it as a ‘national asset’ in order to conduct research. Whether the drone was downed by the Iranians or malfunctioned is not clear. The drone is an RQ-170 Sentinel equipped with stealth technology, and was recently disclosed to have been spying on Iranian military and nuclear facilities.

On April 22nd, the Iranian government announced that it had cracked the encryption codes and extracted data from the drone, and had adequate information to begin manufacturing its own. The Iranian military aerospace chief, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, has also revealed that the drone carried out surveillance of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Northwest Pakistan among other missions. Iran has used this as proof that they have indeed been able to fully compromise the drone. Nevertheless, the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has expressed serious doubts about Iran’s credibility in making the claim. Iran has thus far refused to share the extracted information, despite requests from China and Russia.

 

Iranian regional diplomacy

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the disputed island of Abu Musa on his tour of Iran’s Gulf coast, causing an "international incident". Abu Musa is located just inside the entrance to the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. The sovereignty of the islands has been disputed between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 1971, when the UAE first gained independence. The UAE recalled its Ambassador to Tehran, and, along with the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), condemned Ahmadinejad’s visit as a “flagrant violation of its sovereignty”. Iran countered saying that Iran’s sovereignty is non-negotiable, but has also attempted to arrange talks.

President Ahmadinejad also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on April 22nd in Tehran to discuss strengthening political, economic and cultural ties, with a view to establish a closer strategic relationship and a united front against external powers.

 

With contributions from Shivani Handa, BASIC

 

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