Iran nuclear talks: Uncharted territory

Some really important negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program have been taking place in Geneva – even if they were almost overshadowed by a suddenly-famous, coke-snorting mayor in Canada and a vast, powerful tropical storm that left a trail of devastation across the central Philippines over the weekend. Nevertheless, what has happened between the Six + One group and Iran matters a great deal as well, even if the result is not yet a successful conclusion. J. BROOKS SPECTOR unpacks the negotiations so far – and then takes a guess at what may come next.

What may have mattered most, ultimately, is what didn’t happen during the discussions. Nobody stormed out of the meetings, screeching denunciations of the other side, there was no metaphorical slamming of doors, no hostages were taken, and there were no sabre-rattling troop movements to put everyone’s nerves on edge. What there was, so far, was simply a failure to reach a conclusive agreement – or agreements. And maybe that’s not too bad a score in the case of an international relationship that has had its share of bad outcomes over the past quarter century.

For the past several days, senior officials from the Six + One group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, the UK, the US and Russia, plus Germany) have been closeted with Iranian officials in Geneva to reach towards an agreement that would find a pathway to reaffirm Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for electrical generation and medical activities. This would happen even as the resulting agreement would put a lid on any possible development and use of  fissile materials for nuclear warhead production – something the Iranians stridently deny they are doing the first place. For days, too, as the representatives met, there was significant rising speculation that a deal was virtually done.

Finally, as Saturday night slid into Sunday morning, the European Union’s foreign affairs head, Catherine Ashton and Iranian foreign affairs head Javad Zarif came out to say, sorry, there was no done deal – although they did offer assurances there would be a return to the negotiations in ten days to give it another shot. As Ashton said at that point, “A lot of concrete progress has been made, but some differences remain.” Zarif added when he spoke at the same media moment, “I think it was natural that when we started dealing with the details, there would be differences.”

By some measures, the negotiations did not reach a successful conclusion almost as much because of disagreements among the Six + One group as between that Group and Iran. In particular, France voiced some strong concerns the deal that was moving forward would neither restrain Iranian uranium enrichment from the 20% concentration of fissile uranium fuel suitable for energy generation to the higher concentrations needed for weapons grade levels of the material, nor halt the construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor that would be able to generate plutonium – a second pathway towards the kind of stuff that makes a fission bomb go boom. Commenting on his nation’s position, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, told media when he described what had happened, “The Geneva meeting allowed us to advance, but we were not able to conclude because there are still some questions to be addressed.”

Apparently as a result of the French stance, the next round of meetings is now scheduled to take place among officials a step below that of the level of foreign ministers, beginning on 20 November. This seems indicative of the concerns it may not  immediately be possible to reach a conclusive agreement at the next round. American Secretary of State John Kerry had actually left his round of talks in the Middle East on Friday to join the British, French, German, Russian foreign ministers and a Chinese vice foreign minister, in apparent anticipation that success was in the air and the deal was about to be initialed.

Nevertheless, in response to the non-conclusive nature of this most recent round of talks, Zarif insisted, “What I was looking for was the political determination, willingness and good faith in order to end this. I think we’re all on the same wavelength, and that’s important.” And at the end of those negotiations, Kerry had told reporters, “There’s no question in my mind that we are closer now, as we leave Geneva, than when we came. It takes time to build confidence between countries that have really been at odds with each other for a long time now.”

The negotiators had been considering an agreement that would have come into being in several stages. The first part of what was supposed to be the negotiated result would have had Iran freeze its nuclear program for up to half a year, to give space for succeeding negotiations on a more comprehensive, longer-term agreement, all without fears that Iran would, in the meantime, forge ahead on the construction of a bomb. In response to this concession, the West would have then relaxed some of the international economic and financial sanctions that have hobbled the Iranian economy and helped generate a growing – and so far generally unfulfilled – demand for greater material comforts among Iranians.

But in the end, this meeting at least could not come together on an agreement to restrain the Iranian uranium enrichment program and the heavy-water, plutonium generating reactor that is being constructed. Most experts believe agreement about that Arak nuclear plant could have been dealt with conclusively later on into the talks, because it is presumably about a year away from full completion. Moreover, it will still take even longer to actually generate plutonium for weapons.

While the lack of success in this round of talks, does not, in and of itself spell out failure, it does allow for forces in the US – especially among many congressional Republicans and some Democrats as well – and on the part of the Israelis – to ramp up their criticism of the outline of the potential deal that was being discussed. Foreign Policy reported, for example, that “Key White House allies on Capitol Hill and throughout the Middle East appeared to be on a collision course with the Obama administration Friday as lawmakers and world leaders waited for details about what could be an imminent nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran.”

When he was in Israel a short time before he jetted back to Geneva, Kerry had told officials there that the US was pushing for Iran – as part of the initial agreement – to go along with a “complete freeze over where they are today.” In his news conference when the talks had ended, Kerry had said limits on the Arak reactor would have been part of any initial agreement. Apparently, too, some American officials were also suggesting Iran could go along with refraining from running or fueling that facility during the half year of the planned interim agreement, although they could continue to construct the reactor itself.

The downstream conundrum facing the Six + One group (as well as for neighbouring states like Israel whose government has been vociferous in pointing to Arak as an existential threat aborning) is that as soon as the Arak reactor is good to go and the plutonium begins to be churned out, it would be virtually inconceivable for anyone to disable it via a military strike. This would be true even if a nation attempted a so-called precision strike against it, using smart bombs – without creating the very real threat of a vast wind borne killer distribution of life-threatening nuclear detritus. Such an eventuality would obviously clear the table of that response option to Arak going operational and that would presumably lower the Six + One’s leverage in the talks.  (The Israelis have previously attacked reactors in Iraq and Syria, but those attacks had taken place before  nuclear fuel had been put into the reactors.)

The Arak reactor is a key choke point for any agreement because it is clear pathway to a bomb, producing plutonium rather than the longer, more complex process of generating increasingly concentrated weapons grade uranium through the use of thousands of gas centrifuge devices. Additionally, the explanations for building this facility given by the Iranians have been unconvincing to most western nuclear experts. Iran is not ready to use the resulting plutonium for any conceivable civilian uses, and the design, nuclear experts say, is one purpose-built to produce the business end of a nuke. The Iranians insist, however, that this heavy-water plant is simply a second pathway for fuel for energy production.

Besides differences over the treatment of the reactors themselves, there were some significant disagreements between the US and its European allies over sanctions abatement decisions. In fact, the most important American sanctions on Iranian oil exports and its banking system come about from congressional action. This means the president has relatively little flexibility in lowering them. In response, the Obama administration has instead been looking carefully at a set of proposed actions that would release Iranian funds now frozen in overseas banks. The cash would be released in tranches rather than all at once – as carrots rewarding specific actions carried out by the Iranians. Such rewards would not need the kinds of congressional action necessary to roll back sanctions contained in law – and thereby precipitating a sustained, bruising scrum in Congress.

By contrast, France and other EU nations have fewer political roadblocks in removing their country-specific sanctions. Any decisions they undertake are easier to carry out – and can be more far-reaching. France and other European Union countries face fewer political restrictions on ending their core sanctions, which means any decision to lift them could be more far-reaching. But, once removed, European officials argue, they would be harder to reinstall – if the negotiations break down or Iran not carry out its negotiated pledges. As a result, the Europeans appear to be more reluctant to roll back sanctions in the first place than the US seems to have been.

Despite all of this, it also seems the European officials were, nevertheless, banking on these talks being more successful than the ones that took place during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term of office. Explaining this climate of expectation, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the media on Saturday, “All of the ministers who are here are conscious of that fact that some momentum has built up in these negotiations. There is now a real concentration on these negotiations, so we have to do everything we can to seize the moment and seize the opportunity to reach a deal.”

Not surprisingly, given the tangle of interests and fears in the region, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu insisted publicly the Iranians must shut down construction of Arak and forego all further uranium enrichment efforts, not just the movement from 20% grade to the 80% weapons grade level that was the topic of discussion at the Geneva negotiations. Netanyahu was not shy about his disagreement, calling the proposed deal the “deal of the century” – for Iran. For his part, Netanyahu said he had told the Six + One “to delay and I’m glad they did. I do not fool myself – there will be an agreement. I hope it will not be an agreement at any price – a good one, not a bad one.” Netanyahu added that his government will “do all we can to convince the powers and the world leaders to avoid a bad agreement.”

Meanwhile, more apocalyptically, that country’s Minister of Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, called upon the language of the Bible to voice his disagreement.  “In return for a mess of pottage, Iran has achieved gains on both the sanctions and the nuclear fronts,” he said. With all this hitting the air, US President Obama ended up calling Netanyahu to reassure the Israeli leader that America remained steadfast in its goal to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Maybe that hasn’t been quite enough to put those fears to bed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. An AP report over the weekend noted, “A pair of testy public exchanges this week appear to have undone whatever good will was created between the Israeli and U.S. governments during a high-profile visit by President Barack Obama early this year. Tensions burst into the open during a swing through the region by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In an interview broadcast on both Israeli and Palestinian TV, Kerry questioned Israel’s seriousness about peace with the Palestinians. Hours later Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired back, vowing not to cave into concessions to the Palestinians – and also saying he ‘utterly rejects’ an emerging nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.” Or maybe there is a little bit of public diplomatic kabuki theatre in this kind of exchange too. It is hard to tell, sometimes.

By Sunday, Iranian officials were busy putting their own best spin on the inconclusive negotiations, saying the country had made progress with the Six + One group in what it termed “serious” talks about Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions. However, Iranian officials also reaffirmed their stance their nation could not be bullied into giving up uranium enrichment as negotiations moved onto the more fraught ground of finding ways to assuage concerns Iran would end up developing atomic weapons. As President Rouhani said, “Nuclear rights in the international framework, including uranium enrichment, on its soil” are not negotiable, he said, adding, “For us red lines [the right of uranium enrichment] are not crossable.”

This “right” to produce nuclear fuel restates previous Iranian statements on uranium enrichment. Presumably, in this reaffirmation of an earlier posture, the country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani and his advisors are attempting to reassure their more hard-line domestic critics that Iran will not make any sweeping concessions in the negotiations to all those big bullying nations.

As the AP noted over the weekend, “All sides proclaimed progress, but noted obstacles such as France’s worries over Iran’s enrichment levels and a planned heavy water reactor that produces plutonium byproducts. On Saturday, state TV lashed out at the French position, calling the country Israel’s ‘representatives’ at the talks.” Nevertheless, the news service’s article continued, “Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a posting on his Facebook page Sunday, said there are ‘some problems’ still to overcome, but called the latest round of negotiations with the six-nation group – the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany – ‘serious but respectful.’ ”

So there we are now – poised between allowing Iran to continue on its current pace of uranium enrichment and the construction of that heavy-water reactor to generate plutonium – and an agreement to bring this to a less threatening conclusion. The talks come back on stream in just over a week. There is no promise of success, but the international expectation, however, is that an agreement is now much closer to hand than it was before the earlier talks had begun in Geneva.

If one had to bet on the outcome of the next round, would it be too much to guess the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time plutonium generating reactor is put on a kind of temporary ice – pending further action in reaching a larger agreement to regulate the enrichment of uranium. All of this would end up being monitored by outside observers (perhaps drawing upon the example of the multilaterally agreed-to Syrian chemical weapons destruction agreement that is ongoing), with progress rewarded by a carefully calibrated timeline of benefits. These, in turn, would be a mix of US presidentially available sanctions relief, along with a scaled relaxation of some (but probably not all) of those broader, more all-encompassing European sanctions until the level of mutual confidence is considerably higher than it is now. Notable in all of this has been the relative lack of any visible public opposition to Western approaches for a deal with Iran from either the Chinese or the Russians. And then, too, there is the potential of the useful threat that the Israelis might, somehow, find some way of deciding to take action themselves, if they decide their fundamental interests are seriously compromised by a bad deal or no deal at all.

For a while, it almost looked like the Obama administration might just stumble into yet another foreign policy success in the Middle East, akin to the circumstances of the Syrian chemical weapons (but not, of course, the end of the country’s civil war). But things may actually get there still for Iran’s nuclear program. If they do, it will largely be due partly to a climate of expectations for progress on all sides and – perhaps most important of all – a serious pent-up demand for the economic relief among the Iranian population that could flow from the relaxation of sanctions, and that no amount of pride in a nuclear weapons capability in that intensely proud nation can reasonably produce for the people of that nation. DM

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Photo: European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a news conference at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva November 10, 2013. Zarif and Ashton said on Sunday they hoped Iran and six world powers would reach an agreement when they gather again in 10 days, adding that the latest round of talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme was something all delegations can build on. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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