Working Through the Tough Issues with Iran

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Working Through the Tough Issues with Iran

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EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton sits with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during P5+1 Iran Talks meeting in Vienna on March 18, 2014 [European External Action Service, 3/18/14]

This week, the P5+1 began a new round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program. The talks are scheduled to continue through Saturday.  Thus far, news out of the negotiations indicates that talks have been challenging, characterized as “good but difficult” by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, while U.S. officials have called for more progress. The primary sticking point in this round of negotiations has been Iran’s centrifuges used for nuclear enrichment. Iran’s negotiating position has been to expand, rather than decrease, its enrichment capacity and centrifuge count – a position which should be rejected by P5+1 negotiators as it is not in accord with Iran’s practical needs for a civilian nuclear program. Yet, tackling the tough issue of centrifuges is a necessary step of negotiations and was expected to be difficult. Moreover, progress made ahead of the talks on other key issues created the space to deal with the centrifuge issue head-on. While it’s premature to make any final conclusions about this round of negotiations, what is clear is that a diplomatic and comprehensive solution to Tehran’s nuclear program remains in the best interests of the United States. Meanwhile, Congress is again considering measures that could undermine rather than support reaching such a solution. eather than support reaching sucuch a solution.  tors as it is not in accord

Negotiating hard issues is the nature of diplomacy and the potentially slower pace of progress should be worked through. During an NSN press call, Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, puts the current state of talks in context, “in this round, the two sides are going to run into some problems. The positive tone in the past, I think, has been valid, but they also never really got into some of the toughest issues, and they are starting to do that now. This is, however, the very natural, nonlinear rhythm of all negotiations. I don’t think it is a cause for any particular concern, it is just an inevitable part of all negotiations. And part of the reason I don’t think it is a concern is that the political will on both sides to reach a deal seems not only to be tremendously strong but also very symmetric.” [Trita Parsi, 5/14/14]

Talks focus on Iranian centrifuges, a key sticking point calling for tough negotiation.

Iran’s opening position on centrifuges: Daryl G. Kimball and Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association explain the issue,The Iranian negotiators’ claim that Iran might need 100,000 first generation IR-1 centrifuges is an opening negotiating position that the P5+1 should and certainly will reject. The Iranian claim is based on the assumption that the initial contract with Russia to supply the Bushehr light-water reactor expires in 2022. However, this ignores the fact that Russia has committed to provide Iran with fuel for that reactor for its entire operating lifespan. Any future reactors that Iran might build with assistance from Russia would likely include a similar fuel supply arrangement.”

Negotiations should scale back centrifuges in line with actual “practical needs:” Kimball and Davenport continue, “The P5+1 should ask Iran to scale back its overall uranium enrichment capacity from 10,000 operating, first generation (IR-1) centrifuges at two sites to approximately half that number, limit enrichment levels to 3.5 percent, keep its enriched uranium stocks to near zero, and agree to more stringent International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to detect and deter noncompliance at declared and undeclared sites. Even with just a few thousand first generation (IR-1) centrifuges at Iran’s main enrichment facility at Natanz (with the other site, Fordow, to be used for research and development only), Iran would have more than sufficient capacity for its foreseeable ‘practical’ nuclear power reactor fuel needs.” [Daryl G. Kimball and Kelsey Davenport, 5/15/14]

Positive developments leading up to this week’s talks paved the way to focus on the tough sticking points.

Arak reactor: “After a series of detailed technical discussions, some compromises leading to a long-term deal may be close. The Iranians have offered to redesign their research reactor at Arak, which was due to go online this year and could otherwise offer an alternative plutonium path to a bomb. They propose to have it fuelled with LEU rather than natural uranium, which would reduce its potential plutonium output by 80%. That may still not be enough if Western experts think the redesign could be easily reversed. Much will depend on how the reactor’s core is modified.”

Fordow enrichment facility: “Similarly, progress has been made over an enrichment facility at Fordow, which is buried deep under a mountain and has thus worried the Israelis because of its supposed invulnerability to aerial attack. Rather than agree to have Fordow permanently shut down, the Iranians are offering to turn it into a small research-and-development site, moving the centrifuges from there to be stored at Natanz, Iran’s main enrichment centre.” [The Economist, 5/17/14 print edition]

Meanwhile, Congress should not move the goalpost of a comprehensive deal with Iran to hinge on Iranian ballistic missiles and support for terrorism – both are very real security challenges but a deal on the nuclear issue is a first step towards addressing them. The current House version of the National Defense Authorization Act calls for not signing any deal with Iran on the nuclear issue unless Tehran ceases uranium enrichment, ballistic missile development, and support for terrorist organizations. Laicie Heeley of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation explains during an NSN press call, “Iran can’t necessarily fix all of its human rights issues and fix every concern we’ve ever had in the past prior to ever fixing this biggest issue…[the biggest issue] being nuclear weapons.” Heeley added, “Ballistic missile capability is also going to be an issue on the Hill. Also, again, I see this as a separate track. I think that restraining Iran’s nuclear program remains the highest priority and ultimately, without a nuclear weapon, Iran cannot deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile. So, while I think that the U.S. and its partners will seek to limit Iran’s ballistic missile capability and further R&D on all of these things, that it shouldn’t be allowed to be the thing that essentially kills negotiations. We have to make sure that Iran’s nuclear program is contained, and obviously these other things are still a concern for the future, but ultimately we have to take one step before we can take the rest.” [Laicie Heeley, 5/14/14]

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Sailor signals for Sailors to set up the aircraft barricade during a drill aboard the USS George Washington. [U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jacob D. Moore, 7/2/11]