WASHINGTON: Long-awaited talks between the world’s six most powerful nations and Iran are set for February 26 in the mountain city of Almaty in Kazakhstan.
The question is, are the two sides ready to bridge the considerable rift dividing them and actually negotiate? This has not happened in a decade of diplomacy that started in 2003 amid fears Iran was secretly building nuclear weapons.
Iran and the six nations negotiating with it — the so-called P5-plus-1 made up of the five permanent UN Security Council members the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France plus Germany — are already alienated from each other. This was the result of three rounds of high-level talks last year, in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow. The meetings were pitched as a last-ditch effort to avoid war and reach a solution, but Iran and the six merely stated their positions and moved not one iota towards compromise.
Let me sketch out each side’s position:
The United States and its partners want Iran to stop doing medium-level enrichment, which brings it closer to having the fissile material needed to make an atomic bomb. They want this without conditions, as a gesture demonstrating Iranian good faith. This would be a prelude to striking a deal on whether Iran can enrich at all.
Iran wants something in return for any first concession. They want sanctions lifted because they are crippling its oil exports. They also want their right to enrich recognized.
Enrichment makes what can be fuel for civilian reactors or the raw material for atom bombs. Low enriched uranium is enriched to up to 5 percent of the isotope U-235 which facilitates chain reactions. A research reactor in Tehran which makes medical isotopes needs uranium enriched to 20 percent. Bombs need uranium enriched to over 90 percent, the right level for explosive chain reactions.
An additional shadow has been thrown over the chances for a deal. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last Thursday blasted the United States as hypocritical for offering talks when it is trying to torment the Islamic Republic into submission with sanctions. “You aim the gun at the Iranian nation and then say ‘negotiate or I shoot’! But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and the (Iranian) nation will not be intimidated by these things,” Khamenei told an assembly of Iranian air force officers. He rejected a US offer for bilateral talks.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to increase its nuclear capabilities. This is not new. Despite a decade of international pressure, Iran has managed to develop a nuclear program that is advanced and close to, if not already at, the stage of being able to forge ahead and build an atomic bomb.
Iran announced in January that it is ready to install advanced centrifuges. These new machines can refine uranium more quickly than the roughly 10,000 centrifuges already installed at its main enrichment plant at Natanz, where low enriched uranium is made. In fact the new IR-2m machines, which would number about 3,000 and could be in place within about six months, would be three to five times faster than the IR-1 centrifuges already at Natanz, according to Olli Heinonen, former chief inspector for the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would mean that Iran would effectively double its enrichment capability at this crucial site. Iran’s second plant in Fordow, which was built under a mountain to make it impregnable to air attack, is smaller, makes 20 percent enriched uranium and is fully outfitted with some 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges, although not all of them are yet enriching.
Indeed, Iran seems to be calibrating its nuclear development so that its stockpiles and capabilities remain just below the level that would incite a military attack by either the United States or Israel.
The official US position is that it will prevent Iran from building a bomb. The more nuanced Israeli stance is that Iran should not be allowed to get the capability to build a bomb, namely to be a short step away from boosting enrichment levels to weapon-grade. The red line at this point for Israel seems to depend on how much 20 percent enriched uranium Iran can stockpile, since this level of enrichment is much closer to weapon-grade than low-enriched uranium. Iran had, as of last November, 130 kilograms of 20-percent enriched uranium stockpiled, according to a UN nuclear report. It would need about twice this to have enough to enrich further to have enough for a first atomic bomb.
Taken together, this is not a good line-up for talks. The Iranians look as if they have a formula for continuing their nuclear work even while confronting the international community. One could argue that if they remain a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, continue to allow IAEA inspections and do not completely reject the multilateral talks set to resume, they could finesse the situation for the foreseeable future. Western officials know this. It is why they are not bending on requiring Iran to abandon 20 percent enrichment before more substantive talks can begin.
One thing could tip the balance — Iran’s increasing its ability to enrich uranium, by using more effective centrifuges. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this point earlier this month. This could make the stockpile already accumulated in Natanz (enough low enriched uranium to make five nuclear bombs if further refined) all the more able to be used in a “break-out” to make a nuclear weapon, Heinonen told me.
On the other hand, Iran must calculate that pressing on with its nuclear work will bring upon it ever-more dire sanctions, combined with the threat of Israel losing patience as Iran accumulates more fissile material.
This is why there is at least hope that messages can be passed in either Kazahstan or at a next meeting that would look beyond the deadlock.
The Iranians must be convinced that the United States is ready to allow them to keep some enrichment, once Tehran has shown good faith and a genuine willingness to curb its program to allay fears its seeks the bomb.
The United States has got to win this trust, perhaps by offering sanctions relief early in the process.
This may require just the sort of personal diplomacy that Khamenei rejected. Pursuing this diplomacy will be extremely difficult because the risk of confrontation will surely increase rather than subside. The key is that Khamenei, who fears US-led diplomacy is part of a thinly-disguised campaign to topple him and his Islamic regime, must be convinced the only way to save his rule is to cut a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
This is brinkmanship of the highest order.
The key to a solution is for neither side to be forced to blink while both sides get something concrete out of a deal which they can sell to their constituencies. In any case, say some diplomats, don’t expect anything to happen until after June, when Iran finishes choosing a new president.
If a solution is reached, which at this point is a long shot, an even bigger task will remain, that of dealing with competing US and Iranian concerns in the Middle East. Think Saudia Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. A nuclear deal would almost certainly be only a first step in defusing this larger confrontation.