May 22, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Iran Nuclear Talks: Progress But No Breakthrough


As of late May 2012, expectations are high for the May 23 talks in Baghdad between Iran and the six negotiating powers: the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China (P5+1). This round of talks follows the April 13-14, 2012, meeting in Istanbul at which Iran agreed, for the first time in two years, to seriously discuss possible curbs on its nuclear program. The gathering in Istanbul followed a six-month period in which discussion of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities increased, the international community sanctioned Iran's exports of oil for the first time ever, and statements from Tehran suggested that it might be ready for a substantial compromise.     

The bottom line for the United States and its partners is that any agreement must eliminate Iran's "breakout" capability — the ability to quickly manufacture weapons grade uranium (90% enriched) and construct a nuclear device. Most experts believe that, at a minimum, Iran must agree to the following steps as part of an agreement:


  • A halt to all enrichment to the 20% level and a removal from Iran of the existing stockpile (about 220 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium. Iran says it is enriching to the 20% level to fuel a reactor that produces medical isotopes, but 20% enriched uranium can easily be enriched further to weapons grade.
  • A closure of the Fordow facility, a hardened site tunneled into the mountains near Qom, where some 20% enrichment is occurring. A fallback position is to allow the site to remain open, but demand that Iran end 20% enrichment and allow close monitoring of all activities there.
  • A comprehensive verification regime run by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that Iran fulfills all of its agreed upon commitments.
  • A full explanation of Iran's reputed efforts to design a nuclear explosive device.


How Will The International Community Reciprocate?

U.S. officials and others assert that it has been the increasingly strict international sanctions, such as the European Union (EU) embargo of Iranian oil imposed in January and scheduled to take full effect on July 1, that have brought Iran into serious negotiations. U.S. and other officials acknowledge that any agreement with Iran will require "reciprocity" — a term used by U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and others to describe a stepwise easing of sanctions, among other conciliatory moves, in exchange for verifiable Iranian compliance.

As part of an agreement with Iran, the international community appears prepared to offer the following:


  • Iran would be allowed, at least in the interim, to enrich uranium to a maximum of 5% level. That level of enrichment is consistent with that needed for generating electricity from a nuclear reactor. This represents a step back from the demands of the six U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2006 that called for Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment.
  • The international community will guarantee to supply Iran with medical isotopes made from the 20% enriched uranium that Iran turns over.
  • Sanctions will be eased.

This last item — the easing of sanctions — is potentially a major sticking point. Press reports say the P5+1 will initially offer only modest sanctions relief, including spare parts for civilian aircraft and technical assistance to Iran's energy industry. At this stage, the P5+1 do not appear ready to rollback the impending EU embargo on Iranian oil, although the EU itself might ease rules that bar the insuring of Iranian oil tankers. Many experts believe that Iran's main objective is to achieve an early lifting of the EU oil embargo and that, failing to do so, could lead to a collapse of the talks entirely.


Signs of Optimism as Well as Caution

As talks get set to resume in Baghdad, some in the international community are optimistic. While a full agreement along the lines discussed above is unlikely, many are hoping that the talks will result in agreement to form technical working groups to explore all of these points and scope them into an agreement. Such groups might meet frequently, perhaps even continuously, in an effort to complete an agreement within a few months.   Optimistic officials point primarily to the comments of senior Iranian leaders that appear to be preparing the Iranian public for an agreement by stressing that the international community is set to recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium. In doing so, Iranian leaders are portraying the potential agreement as a victory, even though they conveniently omit from their statements that this enrichment would be capped at 5%.    

Tempering the optimism is the view among many experts that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamene'i, remains suspicious of U.S. and international intent and might, in the end, not accept an agreement. Following the parliamentary elections in March and April 2012, Khamene'i is now in virtual total control of the political system, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been largely marginalized. The Supreme Leader's view has long been that the West, led by the United States, will use any agreement with Iran as a cover to promote a change in Iran's Islamic regime and to infiltrate Western culture into Iran. Many experts believe that he will balk at the thorough and near-constant inspections that would be needed to enforce any such agreement, viewing these visits as a back-door intelligence gathering and subversion operation. A refusal by the P5+1 to offer an early lifting of the EU oil embargo is likely to reinforce his suspicions even further.

Hanging over the negotiations — past, present, and future — is the Israeli view. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already expressed substantial pessimism that any substantive progress will be achieved in Baghdad or thereafter. In his view, Tehran is using the talks as a means of forestalling further sanctions or military action and thereby gain time to develop its nuclear program further. He has called on the United States and its partners not to allow talks to drag on for many months before moving toward stronger sanctions or even military action, and he will likely resume agitation for such action immediately if the negotiating process should break down. While the Israeli public remains divided on the pros and cons of taking such action, particularly without U.S. explicit approval, Netanyahu has little to fear domestically after he  broadened his coalition in May 2012 to include the Kadima Party headed by former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

At this point, there are few moves that would fully satisfy all of the parties, and the complete fulfillment of any single interest — for the P5+1, Iran, the EU, or Israel — would invariably run counter to one or more of the others. In the end, it is for Tehran to decide how far it is willing to go to avoid the grave economic damage that will occur when the full array of sanctions are in place while also maintaining legitimate claims to power on both the foreign and domestic fronts.


.   .   

.     Also available: TSG Specialized Reports: The Soufan Group's world-class network of intelligence analysts produces specialized geopolitical and risk assessment products tailored to the unique needs of our clients in the public and private sectors. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your requirements and explore how our intelligence services can assist you in achieving your strategic objectives. For more information, please contact us at:


Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM