Talks with Iran on its nuclear work have continued but little progress has been made. A diplomat close to the lower-level meeting of technical experts in Istanbul last Tuesday told me “a large gap” remains between the positions of Iran and the six nations negotiating with it – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France.
It is still not clear if senior-level, political talks designed to win guarantees that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons will resume. These talks had started dramatically in Istanbul in April and continued in Baghdad in May, presenting an alternative to what looked like a growing escalation to a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s atomic installations. But the peace initiative stalled at a June meeting in Moscow, when the two sides were unable to reach agreement on any of the issues at hand. Meanwhile, sanctions against Iran escalated this month when a European Union embargo on Iranian oil and US measures against those who buy Iranian oil went into effect. Iran’s oil exports are already down by some 40 percent.
This week’s new talks in Istanbul were designed to save negotiations and had the modest aim of exchanging information on proposals from the two sides. The one-day experts-level meeting lasted 13 hours, ending after midnight. It is to be followed by a talk between Helga Schmid, the deputy for EU representative Catherine Ashton, who speaks for the six nations, and Ali Beghari, the deputy for Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili. If this goes well, then Ashton and Jalili will talk.
The diplomat said the two sides had in Istanbul “explored positions on a number of technical subjects. There were no further developments in the Iranian position compared to Moscow.” He added: “The onus remains on Iran. Iran needs to decide whether it is prepared to engage in substantial negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement on concrete confidence building steps.”
Iran provided its point of view in a 10-page document entitled “Some Facts Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Talks with 5 + 1 [P5 plus 1, a label for the six nations], 3 July 2012.” The document confirms just how far apart the two sides are.
The six nations, led by the United States, want Iran to end its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a level closer to weapon-grade and far above the level needed for fuel for civilian power reactors. This would be a so-called “stop, ship and shut” operation, namely stopping current 20-percent enrichment, shipping out of the country the over 100 kilograms of uranium already enriched to this level, and shutting the Fordow facility where most of this enrichment was to take place.
— Fordow cannot be shut since there is also enrichment to five percent (needed for power reactor fuel) also taking place there.
— Fordow “is not a military base,” as the P5 plus 1 claims.
— Fordow is indeed heavily fortified, as the P5 plus 1 claims, but this is needed to have “a back-up facility to safeguard our enrichment activities” in the face of the threat of attacks.
— 20-percent enriched uranium is under UN nuclear safeguards and so there is no need to ship it out of the country.
— The 20-percent enriched uranium is being made to provide fuel for a research reactor which makes medical isotopes, and so it is too late for the P5 plus 1 to offer fuel for this reactor.
Beyond these technical issues, Iran insists that its right to enrich be unequivocally recognized, even though the United Nations has called on Iran to suspend enrichment until suspicions about its nuclear work are answered. Iran also wants all sanctions against it lifted, in return for cooperating with the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on questions about possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.
The United States, however, wants the 20 percent enrichment halted as a confidence-building measure, which once done would lead to talks on Iran’s suspending all enrichment in order to get sanctions lifted. This key difference is blocking progress in the negotiation. The two sides simply re-confirmed this basic disagreement in Istanbul.
Once again, the main accomplishment is that the two sides are talking, and continue to have a forum for discussion. Iran made clear in its 10-page document a big-picture driver for talks it sees. It wants dialogue with “mutual respect” and for the two sides to reach “a comprehensive agreement on collective commitments in the areas of economic, political, security and international cooperation.” In short, it wants to be sure that the United States is not seeking to topple the Islamic regime. Israel may fear Iran with the bomb as an existential threat, but the Islamic Republic has some existential concerns of its own.
Talks remain, however, a double-edged sword, since the United States and Israel worry that Iran is using them to defuse action against it while it continues to develop its nuclear program. And so, while these talks proceed, the United States is reinforcing its military presence in the Persian Gulf, especially around the Strait of Hormuz, though which a third of the world’s seaborne oil shipments pass and which Iran has threatened to close. Iran, meanwhile, has carried out military exercises, firing missiles which it says can reach both Israel and US military bases in the Gulf.
Both these moves are as much political signals as they are military preparations. They are also clear signs of just how much is at stake and why there is an undeniable logic towards reaching a negotiated settlement which avoids war. The jury is still out on whether the gap between the two sides is unbridgeable or whether this really is a negotiation. It is an uncertain process, influenced by hidden and hard to calculate factors. In particular, Iran may well be waiting until after the US election in November to see whether it would be dealing with a Democratic or Republican administration.
Michael Adler, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is writing a book on diplomacy in the Iranian nuclear crisis. Michael covered this extensively for five years while in Vienna, where he reported on the International Atomic Energy Agency.