Iran Update: Number 157

  • P5+1 formally agree to resume talks with Iran
  • Second IAEA visit to Tehran; Agency releases latest report on nuclear programme
  • Iran holds parliamentary elections; Khamenei supporters gain significant majority
  • Israeli leadership visit to Washington; Netanyahu and Obama in talks

P5+1 formally agree to resume talks with Iran

In the midst of increasing Israeli pressure for military action, European Union Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton formally responded to an Iranian offer to resume negotiations over its nuclear programme, on behalf of the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. The move was in response to a letter from Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, who had written on February 14 expressing Iran’s readiness for dialogue. Ashton’s response proposed an initial round of confidence-building talks to set out an agenda on steps that would lead to a ‘sustained process of constructive dialogue’ between the parties. Despite previous rounds of failed negotiations, the mood around this latest offer is generally high. Positive indications lay in the EU’s explicit acknowledgement of Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, as well as Iran’s specific focus on the nuclear issue, which it has avoided in previous talks. The effort also refreshes the diplomatic path, one that has been cold for over a year.

Some European and Israeli officials have expressed their concern that Iran may be pursuing the talks to play for time for further enrichment. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe stated his belief that Iran is ‘two-faced’ in its diplomatic efforts, pointing to the ambiguity of the ‘spectrum of issues’ Iran stated it was willing to discuss. The date and venue have to be agreed upon, though preliminary discussions between European and Iranian officials are set to take place in the next two weeks to determine such details. No formal negotiations will take place until April, after Iranian New Year Nowruz celebrations later in March.

On March 6, Iran’s IAEA Representative announced that Iran will grant the IAEA limited access to the Parchin military complex at a date yet to be determined. The site hosts research, development and production of ammunition, missiles and explosives, and in particular an explosives testing chamber believed to be relevant to nuclear weaponization, and has been a particular point of interest for the West since the publication of the IAEA’s November report. It is unclear whether an inspection will ease concerns over the facility; IAEA head Yukiya Amano recently revealed his belief that the site has been ‘sanitised’, suggesting that Iran has delayed access to the site to allow for the removal of suspect installations and contamination before granting access to the Agency. Furthermore, conflicting reports emerged regarding the offer; according to a news release, Iran’s offer was preliminary, conditional and limited to two out of five areas requested. Iran’s decision also rests upon a broader agreement on the resolution of outstanding issues which have stalled in previous negotiations.


Second IAEA visit to Tehran; Agency releases latest report on nuclear programme

Following on from a first round of talks held in late January, a delegation of IAEA officials visited Tehran for further discussions on Iran’s nuclear programme on February 20-21. The talks sought to clarify the suspected military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities, as outlined in the IAEA report from November, and to achieve a ‘structured’ approach for discussions acceptable to both parties. However, Agency inspectors reported that Iranian officials simply rejected all accusations and denied them access to requested documents, personnel and sites. As with the January talks, the visit was deemed a failure; Chief Inspector Herman Nackaert’s admitted that the team members were ‘unable to finalize a way forward’.

On February 24, the IAEA released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme, repeating previous concerns and reporting that Iran had ‘tripled’ its production of uranium enriched to 20% U235. The heavily-protected Fordow site deep within a mountainside has drawn attention from Western states and Israel, leading the Israeli leadership to refer to an approaching ‘Zone of Immunity’ – when Israel would be unable to destroy sensitive Iranian facilities there by military attack. The IAEA reported on their examination of spent fuel bays that indicated the fuel plates and fuel rods were being manufactured to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), as Iran stated they would be used. Furthermore, despite the introduction of newer centrifuge models, the Agency’s concerns over increased uranium enrichment were mitigated by the fact that not all of Iran’s next-generation centrifuges are functioning properly. Nonetheless, the Agency was unable to confirm that all Iran’s nuclear activities were solely for peaceful purposes.

High-ranking Iranian officials have recently denounced nuclear weapons. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei labelled the possession of nuclear weapons a ‘sin’, insisting that Iran would continue with its civil nuclear programme despite pressure from the international community. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a speech to the United Nations-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, deplored the production and possession of nuclear weapons as ‘illegitimate, futile, harmful, dangerous and prohibited as a great sin’. He also accused the West of double standards in permitting the maintenance of the Israeli nuclear arsenal and called for negotiations on a treaty banning outright the possession of nuclear weapons.

The IAEA Board of Governors convened in Vienna on March 5 for five days of deliberations on prominent nuclear issues, of which Iran’s programme was a key point of focus. Its meeting was adjourned mid-week to give the P5 + 1 time to agree a joint statement regarding Iran. It is widely expected that the Board will persist with a dialogue approach to Iran for the time being.


Iran holds parliamentary elections, Khamenei supporters gain significant majority

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei emerged as the principal beneficiary of parliamentary elections held in Iran in the first week of March. The leaders and supporters of the main opposition parties in Iran have either been placed under house arrest or jailed; this election was generally regarded as a contest between the two main conservative factions in parliament, reflecting a wider contest of power between Ayatollah Khamenei and current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to gain influence in parliament ahead of presidential elections next year. Amidst allegations of fraud and incorrect voter turnout, factions close to Khamenei won 75 per cent of the parliamentary seats at the expense of those closer to Ahmadinejad. Khamenei loyalists within the United Fundamentalists Front and the Stability of Islamic Revolution Front gained the most seats. It is widely believed that following the end of President Ahmadinejad’s term in 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei will move to eliminate the presidency and install a prime minister to be elected by parliament only, a move he hinted at in 2011. The impact of the elections upon Iran’s nuclear programme and diplomacy is likely to be minimal, although since the elections Ayatollah Khamenei has softened his hostility towards the West, explicitly welcoming U.S. President Obama’s recent attempts to dampen war rhetoric.


Israeli leadership visit to Washington; Netanyahu and Obama in talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington on March 5 for a series of high-level meetings with senior U.S. officials, in which the course of action against Iran featured prominently as a point of discussion. Meeting President Obama in the White House, both leaders agreed that the acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran would be a threat to Israeli, American and international security. They also explicitly rejected the option of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. Although President Obama reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself, he urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to give the ‘dual-track’ approach (sanctions and diplomacy) time to take effect, particularly in light of the recent EU embargo on Iranian oil, and U.S. sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank. Netanyahu regards the period as a closing window of opportunity in which to take military action against Iran, stating that ‘none of us can afford to wait much longer’. Netanyahu did, however, tell Obama that Israel had not yet made a decision upon a military strike against Iran. Further disagreement was also reported on the perception of the ‘red line’ – the point of no return in Iran’s nuclear programme – which would prompt severe reprisals by other countries.

Netanyahu had communicated in statements prior to his visit that Iran’s arrival at a nuclear capability would be considered a ‘red line’ to Israel, though the issue was not pressed upon in the meeting, and Obama did not yield on the matter. (Earlier this year, the U.S. Intelligence Community reiterated that there is no hard proof that Iranian leaders have “actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon”.)  Prime Minister Netanyahu asserted that the West should not re-open negotiations with Iran unless it verifiably halts uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks- something the Obama administration rejected as unrealistic and an obstacle to the negotiations process.

The visit of the Israeli leader coincided with the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israeli lobby. Convening for an annual conference in the capital, the group’s pressing for an imminent military strike against Iran was reinforced by statements from most of the U.S. Republican presidential candidates in their addresses to the conference, who criticised Obama’s ‘weak’ foreign policy and advocated the use of military force. In his own address to AIPAC, President Obama used the opportunity to criticise recent Israeli sabre-rattling, as well as rhetoric by the U.S. Republican presidential candidates for their ‘loose talk of war’, but also restated that military action remained on the table, as an option for the United States.

In response to the heightening rhetoric of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran warned that it would retaliate against any attacks. It also stated that it would take pre-emptive action against states it felt to be threatening its national interests. However, in a unique departure, Supreme Leader Khamenei praised Obama’s restraint at the conference.

Nikita Shah, BASIC



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