Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Nuclear Negotiation with Iran: Promise & Disappointment & Promise...

The hope for an improved relationship between the United States and Iran is being tested.  

Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's August 2013 election and September United Nations General Assembly speech, Iranian officials have met repeatedly with representatives of Britain, France, the United States, Russia, China, and Germany (referred to as the P5+1) to discuss Iran's controversial nuclear program.  

A first round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 took place in October in Geneva, Switzerland.  At that meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif presented his government's proposal, the details of which were not made public.  The proposal laid out several stages that would occur within a year and included Iranian concessions and Western nations easing sanctions against Iran.  White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Iranian proposal signified "a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before."

The outcome of that first nuclear negotiation round: to continue talking.  

In November, a second round of negotiations was held in Geneva.  It hoped to build on the "candid discussions" from round one.  The heart of negotiations centered on the issue of uranium enrichment.  As US Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Geneva on 08 November to join the already-begun and promising negotiations, the P5+1 was seeking Iran's cessation of enriching uranium to 20% purity, a threshold for nuclear-weapons-grade-uranium. 

In the midst of round two, US officials shared the details of a deal they believed achievable if Iran accepted the P5+1's demands.  Under the proposed deal,

Iran would agree:

Israeli reaction was sharp and critical as word of a possible deal spread.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech on 07 November decried a deal that would allow Iran to retain nuclear weapon capability and ease economic sanctions.  "Israel understands that there are proposals on the table in Geneva today that would ease the pressure on Iran, ease the pressure on Iran for concessions that are not concessions at all. ...I believe that adopting them would be a mistake of historic proportions."  Prime Minister Netanyahu called for the P5+1 to leave in place economic sanctions to motivate Iran to cease all enrichment activity and stop work on its heavy water plutonium reactor.  He added: "Anything less will make a peaceful solution less likely.  And Israel always reserves the right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat."

Israel's demands were echoed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who arrived late to the Geneva negotiations and met late into the evening with Secretary Kerry on 09 November.  Fabius suggested the addition of two key points to the interim agreement with Iran: "there should be no guarantees in the preamble about the country's right to enrich uranium; and work would have to stop on a heavy-water nuclear reactor... capable of producing plutonium, about 130 miles south-west of Tehran."

Later that evening, a three-page draft proposal now included the two items suggested by Foreign Minister Fabius (i.e. no Iranian right to enrichment and cessation of work on the heavy-water nuclear reactor) as well as a section that would limit Iran's enrichment capacity and its stockpiles of enriched uranium in return for limited sanction relief.  Within an hour and half of its presentation to the foreign ministers of the P5+1, they had all agreed to the proposal.  

How would Iran react to the new draft agreement?

Iran refused to sign onto the agreement.  It no longer included Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif's earlier proposed preamble language.  Iran had sought recognition of its right to enrich uranium and wanted to continue construction on the heavy-water nuclear reactor with caveats that Iran would not put uranium fuel into the reactor.

No deal.

However, agreement was made to continue talking, and meet again in later November.  

And then... came the finger pointing.

Iran alleged that disunity amongst the P5+1 had led to the breakdown in negotiations, pointing to the late arrival of French Foreign Minister Fabius one day into the negotiations, Fabius' opposition to the US draft that had been largely agreed upon, and Fabius' insistence upon the inclusion of items opposed by Iran in the final draft.  Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Europe and the Americas Majid Takht Ravanchi publicly announced "It was very clear that the problem of two different voices existed within the P5+1 member countries, and we hope that this will be resolved by the next round of negotiations."

Secretary Kerry and the White House refuted Iran's claim of P5+1 disunity and instead attributed the failed negotiations to Iran.  According to Kerry, "The P5+1 was unified ... everybody agreed this was a fair proposal.  There was unity.  But Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment; they weren’t able to accept that particular agreement."
Looking Forward

The issue of nuclear technologies and debates about rights of enrichment are weighty and complex issues.  The players know this well.  

In the words of Iranian official Majid Takht Ravanchi:

"In these complicated and difficult negotiations which address different matters, one cannot expect the issues to be resolved in two rounds.  The issue is that we are moving in the right direction and will be confronted with ups and downs along the way.  We have certainly made progress but it is too early to predict whether this path will lead to the signing of an agreement in the next round or not."

And in the words of Secretary Kerry:

"We [Iran and the United States] haven't been speaking for 35 years... We just talked more in 30 hours than we have in those prior 30 years."

A Good Omen

Separately, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a statement on 11 November that Iran had agreed to preliminary arrangements to begin implementation of the following six measures within three months:
  1. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Gchine mine in Bandar Abbas
  2. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Heavy Water Production Plant
  3. Providing information on all new research reactors
  4. Providing information with regard to the identification of 16 sites designated for the construction of nuclear power plants
  5. Clarification of the announcement made by Iran regarding additional enrichment facilities
  6. Further clarification of the announcement made by Iran with respect to laser enrichment technology

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