Iran, EU Struggle to Start Nuclear Talks

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As September drew to a close, European and Iranian negotiators were attempting to reach an agreement regarding ground rules for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The permanent five members of the UN security Council, along with Germany and Italy, agreed Sept. 19 to give Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, until early October to reach an agreement with his Iranian interlocutors.

Solana met several times during September with AIi Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National security Council and Iran's lead nuclear negotiator, but was unable to strike an accord over which would come first, the beginning of the negotiations or the suspension of Tehran's gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program.

Iran faces possible UN security Council sanctions because of its failure to comply with an Aug. 31 council deadline requiring it to suspend its enrichment program. Uranium enrichment can produce low-enriched uranium, used for fuel in civil nuclear reactors, as well as highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

A package of incentives and disincentives offered to Iran in June by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States requires Iran to enact such a suspension before negotiations can begin. Tehran has indicted that it is willing to consider suspending the program but continues to resist doing so before beginning negotiations.

A European diplomat told Arms Control Today Sept. 25 that both the United States and Iran will have to be flexible regarding the timing of a suspension announcement, adding that "some sort of face-saving" measure would be necessary. Although U.S. and European officials would not speak publicly of a specific deadline, the diplomat confirmed press reports that the relevant countries had agreed that Iran had to respond satisfactorily by early October. These countries now include Italy, which was not a party to the initial offer, but has since taken a more prominent role.

Security Council members have been discussing a resolution that could implement sanctions, but they apparently have not yet reached consensus on the matter.

Resolution 1696, which the security Council adopted in July, requires Iran to suspend its enrichment program, and calls on it to undertake other measures, such as fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) investigation of its nuclear programs, in order to build confidence that its nuclear program is intended exclusively for peaceful purposes. According to the resolution, the council intends to adopt "appropriate measures" short of military force if Iran refuses to comply. No such measures will be adopted if Iran cooperates. (see ACT, September 2006.)

But an Aug. 31 report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei requested by the security Council resolution indicates that Iran has neither suspended its enrichment work nor provided the agency with significant cooperation on outstanding issues of concern.

Elements of a Deal?

Tehran's lack of compliance was foreshadowed by its Aug. 22 response to the June proposal. Iran's 21-page response, a copy of which was made public in September, describes the proposal as containing "useful foundations" for "long-term cooperation" but does not explicitly accept the conditions for beginning negotiations.

Iran further said in the response that it wants clarification of what it describes as "ambiguities" regarding some of the package's provisions. For example, Tehran wants its interlocutors to clarify the scope of any potential nuclear cooperation agreements, as well as provide "irreversible and irrevocable guarantees" that any such agreements will be carried out.

The June package contains several proposals for providing Iran with nuclear energy, including part ownership of a Russian enrichment facility, a five-year "buffer stock" of enriched uranium stored under IAEA supervision, and multilateral ventures to provide a light-water nuclear power reactor. …