Iran Update: Number 159

Talks in Baghdad concluded without making substantive progress, but parties agreed to meet again in Moscow on June 18.  The IAEA’s meeting with officials in Tehran to address “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear program showed more promise.

Baghdad talks extended, atmosphere strained and progress slow

Negotiating parties retained the optimism established in Istanbul as the talks in Baghdad commenced on May 23, supported by the successful meeting between the IAEA and Iran the day before, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s reiteration of Iran’s fatwa on nuclear arms. Unfortunately, hopes were not realised, and the talks broke up with little to show other than a commitment to continue. Unfortunately Salehi’s prediction that ‘good news’ would follow the second round of talks within as little as a day or so proved unfounded. Talks were extended to another month – with the delegations set to meet in Moscow on June 18-19. Western officials have stated their intention to narrow the focus almost exclusively on Iran’s medium-grade (20%) enrichment program in order to break the deadlock on this key issue.

This first round of in-depth negotiations anticipated more detailed proposals to the Istanbul opening, the discussion of core issues and the establishment of a framework within which the seven countries may build the confidence needed for a sustainable process towards a shared end-goal. As the E3+3 (P5+1) remain divided, they fell back on the default position of demanding complete cessation of enrichment for more substantial agreement, and negotiations stagnated. The Obama administration had already said that the United States would not be prepared to contemplate the easing of sanctions at this stage except on some very limited concessions around aircraft spare parts and assistance with the provision of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), in exchange for the export of Iran’s higher-grade (20%) enriched uranium.

Iran expressed its growing impatience with the lack of progress around the lifting of sanctions and what it sees as insufficient compromise in return for its willingness to address limits to its enrichment program, and accusing the E3+3 of creating a “difficult atmosphere” at the talks. The E3+3 have insisted upon Iran taking the first step in order to establish confidence, but this appears to the Iranians to undermine the dialogue of reciprocity put forward at the Istanbul talks in April. Iran is conditioning its offers on “significantly revised and reformed” E3+3 proposals according to the state press agency, IRNA. The Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) has gone so far as to cast doubt on Iran’s involvement in future talks, but it seems premature to be making such predictions. With its economy plummeting prior to the fresh wave of sanctions, Iran’s urgency to reach an agreement before the end of June (U.S. sanctions take effect on June 28 with the EU oil embargo following shortly on July 1) is growing stronger.

Israel and the E3+3 have also pressed Iran to close its deeply-buried underground nuclear facility known as Fordow (near Qom), where it has been producing a higher grade of uranium under safeguards. In order to consider lifting sanctions, the West has stated that Iran must take “irreversible” steps towards curbing its enrichment as well as providing greater transparency and verification of their commitment through cooperation with the IAEA.

One of Iran’s core concerns remains that the United States will attempt to undermine its regime. A report by the Oxford Research Group (co-authored by BASIC’s Paul Ingram alongside Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi and Gabrielle Rifkind) has highlighted this as one among several crucial obstacles to negotiations, and adds that apart from maintaining a dialogue of reciprocity, it is vital that Iran’s right to a civilian program under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is recognized with the correct balance of incentives, as well as reassurance that the countries will not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. Most importantly, there will need to be an atmosphere in which “proposals are not seen as tricks with the only purpose to cheat the other side, and saying ‘yes’ is not portrayed as an admission of weakness”.
Iran-IAEA meeting in Tehran shows signs of progress; Board of Governors issues latest report today

The first round of IAEA-Iran technical talks was initiated in Vienna earlier this month and has been followed up by a meeting between the IAEA secretary general, Yukiya Amano, and Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Council and head of the Iranian delegation in the nuclear talks; foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi; and the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, leading nuclear scientist Fereydoon Abbasi in Tehran on May 21. The second meeting centred predominantly on the subject of the IAEA gaining unrestricted access to inspect the Parchin military base in the southeast where preparations for underground testing are suspected and where the IAEA has long suspected Iran of conducting nuclear experiments.

This has remained a controversial issue, with Iranian refusal to allow inspectors full access and thus increasing suspicion. As reported in The New York Times, former senior IAEA inspector Robert Kelley has pointed out that blast chambers are not necessarily “indicative” of the development of nuclear arms as they are often used to test conventional bombs and chemical explosives and/or diamond synthesis. It will thus be difficult to obtain conclusive evidence, even if the IAEA does manage to gain access to the chambers, particularly if the facilities have been used for dual-purpose projects. Robert Alvarez, a former policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy, has expressed his concern that making irrefutable claims with this type of evidence in a “loaded political environment” could be tricky. However, if nuclear material is discovered at the site, the IAEA has asserted that this will be perceived as a “strong [indicator] of possible weapon development”.

The willingness to discuss inspections, especially in regards to the Parchin site, illustrates an unprecedented commitment from Iran to move forward. Amano emerged confident that the finalization of agreements on a work plan with Iran would be achieved in the near future.

The IAEA Board of Governors just issued its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program today. Some advanced press coverage mentioned that Iran has installed more centrifuges at the underground Fordow facility since February. Other news reports said that traces of uranium enriched up to the 27% level (above the usual 20%) had been detected at the site, but this small increase was likely a “production error”.

United States passes new economic sanctions against Iran

On May 21, two days prior to the second round of talks in Baghdad between the E3+3 and Iran, the U.S. Senate passed additional sanctions on Iran’s oil sector. The new sanctions will affect any country that aids Iran in the development of its energy sector, specifically its oil or uranium industries. They also apply to any joint venture where countries enter into “significant economic transactions” with Iran, or have any affiliation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in order to target any loopholes that may have been left in the previous sanctions. Furthermore, the bill will target any country that supplies Iran with technology that could be used for oppression and the abuse of human rights. Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), the bill’s chief architect, warned that the United States would continue to force the pace and “make our own plan – through sanctions or other necessary measures – to ensure that Iran fails to achieve its nuclear ambitions”. However the bill makes clear that it does not authorize the use of military force.


Suzanne Maloney, from the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, has commented saying that both parties appear to be playing a dangerous “game of chicken”, with neither of them willing to make real concessions at this stage, despite their dialogue of mutual compromise and reciprocity. Those in favour of sanctions argue that only the pressure from such harsh measures encourages Iran to negotiate more openly than it would have considered doing in the past. However, imposing a new wave of sanctions so close to the second round of negotiations may have conveyed a negative impression, one that sees the United States unwilling to leave room for negotiation on sanctions in the future, which would increase tensions and contradict the progressive dialogue from the Istanbul talks, rendering the talks futile in the eyes of the Iranians if this is indeed their sole purpose for entering into negotiations in the first place.

Paul Pillar, a security studies professor at Georgetown University, voices this exact concern in his argument that “the biggest requirement now for getting an agreement is not to pile on still more sanctions, but instead to persuade the Iranians that if they make concessions the sanctions will be eased” or delayed. Furthermore, critics are concerned that the sanctions strategy could lead to a painful rise in prices of crude oil.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has questioned whether attempts to halt Iran’s enrichment has had any success, as it has already extensively developed the systems required under the guise of various civilian and conventional military purposes. Limits on Iran’s fuel cycle have no impact on Iran’s other capabilities, such as bombs and warheads (although the new technology sanctions may hinder this). Cordesman elaborates, highlighting the way “the previous IAEA list of Iran’s known and suspect activities shows that Iran can create a compartmented series of efforts – none of which are formally tied to some central program or office – that will move it forward…often into very small facilities or ones with a convincing academic or industrial cover”.

-With contributions from Shivani Handa and Paul Ingram, BASIC

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