The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors will meet this week, starting today in Vienna, and Iran’s nuclear program will be on the agenda. The May 22nd IAEA report concluded that little has changed since previous assessments of the nuclear program – with Iran continuing to enrich nuclear fuel and Tehran and the Agency at loggerheads over what is necessary to show that all of Iran’s nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano aired his growing frustration over the impasse in his opening statement earlier today.
Most international attention around Iran is now focused on their June 14th presidential election. During the presidential selection process, little movement is expected for negotiations around the nuclear program. Though not a predominant topic of discussions so far, the approved candidates have all issued their support for continuing the nuclear program. The program is still held up as an example of national pride and independence, especially in the face of mounting international sanctions that have been levied as part of an effort to persuade Iranians to change course and slow Iran’s ability to continue the program.
For the most part, the U.S. Congress continues, for now, to look for ways to tighten sanctions against Iran. And the Obama Administration, for its part, imposed additional measures last Friday against companies related to Iran’s petrochemical industry. Although the tightening of sanctions has held domestic appeal for some politicians as a way for them to be seen to be taking concrete action, the ratcheting up of long-term sanctions which would be difficult and lengthy to repeal, have been seen by some experts to be compounding a diplomatic stalemate in negotiations. (Last week, U.S. sanctions were lifted on high-tech software and mobile devices. However, many are viewing this more as a way to support Iranian citizens, rather than any concession to the regime.)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while hosting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Washington, DC last week, said that he did not expect the aftermath of Iran’s presidential elections to bring about any significant change in nuclear policy. After all, it is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council who approve of the presidential candidates and would be involved in any larger decisions around the course of the nuclear program.
Still, opportunities could arise after June 14, as long as opposing sides are allowed ways to save face. Relations between Iran and the United States are often seen as the linchpin, and some experts (such as those with the Iran Project) have suggested that halting the imposition of certain additional U.S. sanctions and/or walking back some existing penalties may encourage Iran to move towards meeting IAEA and U.N. Security Council demands.
In addition, experts have advised that holding a conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East, now stalled, could build more confidence in non-proliferation that many other states could support. However, significant challenges to moving forward with a conference remain, as detailed in one assessment from BASIC last month. Moreover, Iranian and American differences over the Syrian crisis have further worsened relations.
Iran is currently serving as President of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, where the United States is boycotting the proceedings at the ambassadorial level during the term to protest what it sees as a contradiction against nuclear non-proliferation principles. Amb. Mohsen Naziri Asl, who will preside until the end of June, made his opening statement last Tuesday. The CD has been challenged for decades to move ahead on its own Program of Work on nuclear disarmament, so the job is not enviable. It will be interesting to see how the Ambassador manages the forum, and also to see what possibilities might arise after mid-June and into July- whether Iran and the United States might take an opportunity to turn a new corner.