April 9, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Iran Nuclear Talks: Agreement Unlikely

• At nuclear talks scheduled for April 13-14, Iran is unlikely to reach an agreement that limits its option to eventually develop a nuclear weapon, even if the result is further isolation and additional international sanctions.

• Iran and the six powers negotiating (“P5+1”) with it are likely to announce enough progress to justify another round of talks to be held at a later date. Such an announcement will at least temporarily quiet Israeli discussion of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.


As of early April 2012, talks on Iran's nuclear program between Iran and the six powers of the "P5+1" group ? the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany ? are scheduled to continue on April 13-14. The last round in an ongoing series of talks that began in 2006 were held in Istanbul in January 2011 and, by all accounts, made no progress whatsoever. Iran refused to discuss any P5+1 proposals, instead demanding, as a precondition, an easing of international sanctions.

An earlier round, in October 2009, reached tentative agreement for Iran to send out its low enriched (3.5% - 5% enriched) uranium for reprocessing into usable fuel rods for its Tehran Research Reactor ? a formula that would have given the international community confidence that Iran could not quickly produce a nuclear weapon. However, implementation talks failed, reportedly because Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i saw the deal as removing Iran's option to produce a nuclear weapon at some point.

In the more than two years since that tentative deal, Iran's nuclear program has moved ahead to the point at which that earlier proposal now has limited utility. Not only has Iran produced substantially more low-enriched uranium since then, it is also currently producing substantial quantities of 20% enriched uranium. Iran claims this level of purity is needed for medical uses, but the international community sees the 20% enrichment level as giving Iran the ability to rapidly convert it to the highly-enriched uranium (90%) that would be needed for a nuclear weapon. Moreover, some of the 20% enrichment is now taking place in a hardened site, tunneled into the mountains in Fordow, outside the holy city of Qom.


Consensus on What's Needed for Resolution

With previous proposals largely mooted by the progress of Iran's nuclear program, there appears to be an emerging consensus on the main outlines of what might constitute an acceptable outcome for the upcoming talks. Iran realizes that the primary concern of the P5+1 ? and of Israel ? is its enrichment to the 20% level, particularly at the hardened Fordow site. This concern was made clear during the March visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the United States. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sees that level of enrichment at the hardened Fordow site as delivering Iran into a ""zone of immunity,"" conditions under which Israel would no longer have a military option to halt Iran's nuclear program.

With that recognition, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly advanced a proposal that Iran might agree to stop enriching to the 20% level and to send its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium outside for reprocessing elsewhere. The Obama Administration reportedly sees such a proposal as promising, as the idea, if implemented verifiably, would assure the international community that Iran could not easily sprint toward nuclear weapons production, were there an Iranian decision to do so. The idea would imply that the United States and its partners would agree to drop the demand, enshrined in six U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006, that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment inside Iran. Press reports say the United States and its partners may also demand full closure of the Fordow site, and possibly that Iran still send its low-enriched uranium stockpile outside Iran, but these are considered opening positions that the P5+1 is likely to drop in the interests of achieving a deal. 

In the course of international meetings in Seoul in late March, President Obama reportedly discussed the U.S. demands with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, an interlocutor with Tehran. Within days thereafter, Erdogan purportedly took the 20% enrichment halt proposal to Tehran, including in meetings with Supreme Leader Khamene'i. It is not clear whether the Supreme Leader gave his assent to the proposal. However, according to most close observers of the issue, his subordinates understand that, in order to defuse further crisis over the nuclear program, Iran must agree to the 20% enrichment halt, as well as to associated verification measures.

Israeli Defense Minister Barak indicated on April 8 that Israel might accept the 20% enrichment halt as a step toward defusing the Iran issue. However, if Iran does not accept the proposal and the talks fail, Israel will almost certainly contend that diplomacy and sanctions have no chance of succeeding, and that military action should be considered immediately. Even President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton appear to have adopted Israel's sense of urgency, saying in late March and early April that the window for diplomacy is closing.        


Reasons for Skepticism

As the talks approach, cause for optimism seems to be diminishing. In early April, Iran, while not saying the talks should be postponed or cancelled, raised questions about the venue of Turkey. Iranian leaders complained that Turkey, previously considered a confidant of Iran, was no longer an appropriate venue because Turkish leaders have called for the overthrow of Iran's ally, Bashar Al Assad of Syria. Some Iranian leaders argued the talks should instead be held in Iraq or China; not surprisingly, Iraq was immediately declared by the P5+1 as a non-starter due to security conditions. Ultimately, Iran confirmed on April 8 that it would attend the talks as scheduled in Istanbul.

Still, close observers have grown highly doubtful that there will be any breakthrough at the talks. Many believe the Iranian complaints about the venue represented a cover for the fact that the Iranian leadership has not reached a consensus to accept the 20% enrichment halt idea. Informed observers maintain that the Supreme Leader is balking at agreeing to discontinue enrichment to 20%, seeing that as capitulation to international sanctions and Israeli threats, and as forfeiting any nuclear weapons option. 




• At the April 13-14 talks, Iran will likely agree to discuss the cornerstone proposal of halting 20% enrichment. The discussions will ultimately achieve just enough progress for the two sides to announce that a subsequent round of talks will be held, possibly in China. That announcement will defray, for several months, further Israeli discussion of a unilateral strike on Iran.



• It is highly unlikely that, in the coming round or a subsequent round of talks, Iran and the P5+1 will reach final agreement on the 20% enrichment halt. With the Supreme Leader skeptical of any deal with the international community, it is not expected that Iran will agree to the intrusive verification steps needed to assure that Iran has halted enrichment to the 20% level.

• As talks falter, Israel will argue that sanctions and diplomacy have failed and that only military action can guarantee that Iran's program will be decisively set back. President Obama is likely to make a case to Israel that there is still time for sanctions and diplomacy to work ? especially as a European Union embargo on Iranian oil does not take full effect until July 1 ? but, as 2012 draws to a close, he also is likely to increasingly contemplate U.S. military action against Iran.


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