- The international community is awaiting a delayed response by Iran to a draft nuclear fuel agreement announced by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general Mohamed ElBaradei last week. There have been mixed messages from Tehran regarding the deal.
- The most promising sign from an international perspective would be full Iranian endorsement of the Vienna deal, provided it is fully implemented and is the start, rather than the end, of concrete outcomes from international pressure.
- However a deal, even if successfully implemented by the end of the year, would at best buy time in terms of finding a comprehensive diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off. This deal alone would not be sufficient to prevent Iran’s nuclear ambitions from materialising.
- To ensure that international resolve to tackle the Iranian nuclear programme does not diminish, the US and its Western will need to remain focused on this threat even as they seek to tackle other foreign policy priorities.
Expectations that Iran would sign up to a draft agreement with the US, Russia and France on its nuclear programme by last Friday’s deadline proved premature. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general Mohamed ElBaradei announced the terms of a deal following talks in Vienna last week: Iran would substantially reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and be resupplied with nuclear fuel for civil nuclear use after processing in Europe. Following approval of the plan by the international parties, Iran delayed its response, stating that it would provide an answer in the middle of this week.[i] Whilst the draft text of the agreement has not been published in full, there are a number of important questions and concerns.
A parallel development is the IAEA inspections of Iran’s secret enrichment facility near Qom, which began yesterday. Iran disclosed existence of the site last month, reportedly upon discovering that Western intelligence agencies were aware of it. Inspections are expected to last several days, but Iran has had weeks to prepare the facility in advance of the visit.
This analysis puts the latest developments in context and examines possible consequences for international efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.
The draft agreement: background and fundamentals
Latest developments in Vienna follow broader talks that have been taking place between Iran and the P5 +1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) in recent weeks. Since meeting with Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Geneva on 1 October, world powers have outlined specific expectations of Iran that would facilitate a more productive diplomatic process. They include endorsement of the uranium export proposal (the current draft agreement), compliance with inspections of the Fordu nuclear facility near Qom, and a further meeting of chief negotiators before the end of the month.[ii]
There are concerns that the export proposal may be interpreted as de facto recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. [iii] However, it remains a clear and legally binding international demand, as stipulated by numerous UN Security Council resolutions, that Iran cease all uranium enrichment activities.
The proposal to export Iranian low enriched uranium was initially drafted by the Americans as an opportunity to temporarily reduce Iran’s stocks of LEU beneath the minimum required for producing a single atomic weapon. They assessed the Iranians might agree to this in order to be able to continue fuelling their Tehran nuclear research reactor, where supplies are running low. That facility has been in operation for decades, partly for producing medical isotopes.[iv] Today it is under IAEA safeguards, though it has in the past been used for military research.[v] Iran turned to the IAEA for assistance with fuelling this facility some months ago.
Though the parties have declined to reveal the full content of the draft agreement, a key element involves shipping 75-85 percent of Iran’s LEU – that stored at its Natanz plant – to a facility of Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy commission.[vi] In Russia, the uranium would be enriched to 19.75% before being transferred to France, where it would undergo further processing. It would then be returned to Iran as fuel rods for the Tehran reactor.
If the agreement is fully implemented, experts estimate that it would delay Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon by a year or two. Iran’s known inventory at present is sufficient, if further enriched, for making one or two atomic bombs.
Tehran’s next move and its implications
Iran’s Residing Representative at the IAEA, Ali Asqar Soltaniyeh, has denied that any deadline was set for a response to the draft agreement, claiming that it was ‘just a request’ by the nuclear watchdog.[vii] Broadly, however, Iran now has three basic options: to accept on the terms to which the other parties have already approved; to reject or fail to respond this week, which would be interpreted as a rejection; or to try to seek further concessions by way of amendments to the text.
Despite public criticism of the plan by some senior Iranian figures, including former nuclear negotiator and now speaker of the parliament Ari Larijani[viii], it is difficult to know the nature of deliberations currently taking place within the Iranian regime. The views of the ultimate decision maker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remain to be seen.
If Iran discards the deal outright, it would be widely perceived as a rebuff of the diplomatic dialogue, and potentially trigger severe international sanctions. Iran’s rejection may threaten to upset Moscow, given the key role Russia is set to play in operating the agreement.
The most promising sign from an international perspective would be full Iranian endorsement and implementation of the Vienna deal, provided it marked the start, rather than the end, of concrete results from the international pressure on Iran. This would likely be perceived as an important accomplishment for US President Barack Obama’s doctrine of diplomatic engagement.[ix] However, it will be noted that engagement has taken place under the credible threat of sanctions. In addition, Tehran is under greater pressure now than earlier in the year, owing to allegations of fraud in the June presidential elections, the subsequent crackdown on opposition protesters and exposure of the Fordu plant.
Given these constraints, Iran’s next move may be to respond receptively, though if past experience is a useful guide, to try also to extract further concessions and drag out the negotiating process as far as possible.
But any attempt to revise the plan to avoid promptly shipping out the uranium would most likely be rejected by the international community. For the US and other world powers, the point of the deal is to reduce Iran’s stockpile and therefore buy time to tackle the more complex, fundamental issue of Iran’s advance towards nuclear weapons capability.
The bigger picture
Even if implemented fully, the deal under review would not resolve the underlying concerns. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, stated last week, ‘As we have said before, we will not give up our [enrichment] rights’.[x] Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has also reiterated this in recent days. With the clock ticking, pressure would need to remain steadfast on Iran to give up the enrichment process, otherwise stockpiles taken out of circulation by the draft agreement would soon be replenished.
Whilst enriched uranium offers Iran the most immediate route to a nuclear weapons capability, it also has the plutonium route via its Arak heavy water facility. An additional concern is that Iran may have more fuel or other installations that it has not publicly disclosed.
As such, the greatest political danger is that the determination of the international community could wane on the back of a short term measure which covers just part of the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme. From the Iranian perspective, seeing the US distracted or reluctant to apply diplomatic leverage would bolster its negotiating stance and encourage it to continue operating at its own pace. To avoid this, whether or not this deal is implemented, the US and Western allies will need to remain focused on the Iranian threat even as they seek to deal with other foreign policy priorities for 2010.
Finally, Israel will continue to seek ongoing, consistent and intense diplomatic pressure on Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons capabilities.[xi] Israeli officials have largely refrained from reacting publicly to news of the emerging deal. However, Israel is keen to see tangible and lasting progress rather than temporary measures. Israelis watch the clock ticking with a great sense of urgency. Washington’s consciousness of this would have played into its thinking about the benefits of buying time for making diplomatic headway.
The Israeli government wants to avoid a conflict with Iran and continues to support the non-military means of addressing Iran’s nuclear advance. US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who was in Jerusalem last week, said that the Obama administration would not ease pressure on the Iranian regime. Israelis will want to know what form this pressure will take going forward.
There remains reason for deep scepticism about Iran’s willingness to engage seriously with the international community over its nuclear programme. Only if the agreement currently on the table is implemented in full and with sufficient safeguards against further obfuscation, will it present a noteworthy step forward. Even then, it will only buy time for the approach of diplomatic engagement. For how long depends upon whether the deal marks the start of a genuine new beginning in Iran’s relations with the West, or whether Iran continues to develop the technology, materials and know-how it needs for producing nuclear weapons.
[i] ‘IAEA Statement on Proposal to Supply Nuclear Fuel to Iranian Research Reactor’, IAEA, 23 October 2009.
[ii] For further details, see ‘Remarks by EUHR Solana following meeting with Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Jalili’, 1 October 2009, European Union; ‘Background Briefing on P5+1 Talks in Geneva’, US Department of State, 1 October 2009.
[iii] In Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s words last week, “The meeting with world powers and their behaviour shows that Iran’s right to have peaceful nuclear technology has been accepted by them.” ‘Iran Says Talks With Powers Won’t Curb Nuclear Drive’, Reuters, 20 October 2009.
[v] Emily B. Landau and Ephraim Asculai, ‘The Nuclear Fuel Deal with Iran: Losing Sight of the Broader Picture?’, INSS, Insight No. 137, 25 October 2009.
[vi] Yossi Melman, ‘As world awaits Tehran on nukes deal, inspectors travel to Iran’, Haaretz, 25 October 2009.
[vii] ‘Iran: No Deadline Set on Draft Agreement’, FARS News Agency, 25 October 2009.
[viii] See, for instance, ‘Larijani: West trying to deceive Iran on nuclear deal’, Press TV, 24 October 2009;
[x] Siavosh Ghazi, ‘Iran vows to retain uranium enrichment rights: Salehi’, Associated Foreign Press, 22 October 2009.
[xi] See, for instance, ‘Amid nuke talks, Barak says Iran must halt uranium enrichment’, Haaretz, 22 October 2009.