Iranian Negotiators' Veiled Flexibility

By Kerr, Paul | Arms Control Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Iranian Negotiators' Veiled Flexibility


Kerr, Paul, Arms Control Today


News ANALYSIS

In seeking to persuade Iran to cease completely its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have offered a combination of incentives and disincentives. So far, Iran has proven to be a tough negotiating partner, publicly insisting that it will pursue enrichment and threatening to end the negotiations if the Europeans demand a permanent cessation. Yet, Iranian officials' actions and rhetoric aimed at domestic audiences suggest that Tehran may be more responsive to such a carrot-and-stick approach than their public statements suggest.

For more than 18 months, the Europeans and Iran have been seeking an agreement that would ease concerns that Tehran intends to develop nuclear weapons, as well as prevent the issue from being referred to the UN security Council. Reaching a mutually acceptable agreement will require overcoming several obstacles. Most basically, European governments say that Iran should agree to end its program, while Tehran insists that it has the right to such activities under nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) provisions that support the peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy.

Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National security Council, told reporters April 20 that Iran would end the negotiations if they "do not lead to a resolution in the next couple of months."

Yet, in recent months and with little fanfare, Iran has tentatively taken a few steps toward the European position, suggesting that, although it still has the right to uranium enrichment, it will accept limitations on the size and scale of its program.

Uranium enrichment can produce both fuel for nuclear reactors and fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran claims that its program is peaceful, but the Europeans are concerned that Iran may be pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program. At the Europeans' request, Iran has suspended the program for the duration of the talks.

In November, the two sides set out a framework for future talks in which they agreed to conclude a "mutually acceptable agreement" that includes "objective guarantees" that Iran's nuclear program is "exclusively for peaceful purposes."

Reaching an agreement on the details of such guarantees has been contentious. A working group has met to discuss the matter several times since beginning work last December. Two similar groups are discussing other technical, economic, and security issues. A steering committee met to review the progress of the working groups for the first time in March but achieved no breakthroughs. (See ACT, April 2005.)

The nuclear working group met April 19, but there was little movement on the proposals. It is widely believed that the talks are unlikely to make significant progress before Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 17.

Yet, evidence of Iran's willingness to compromise can also be found in some Iranian officials' statements intended for domestic consumption, as well as Tehran's position on "objective guarantees."

Carrots and Sticks

The NPT permits states-parties to possess uranium-enrichment facilities for civilian purposes as long as they are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. However, Iran's European interlocutors want Tehran to cease its enrichment program completely, arguing that agency safeguards are insufficient to provide confidence that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Safeguards agreements allow the IAEA to monitor NPT states-parties' declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use.

The Europeans' strategy, therefore, includes both positive and negative incentives for Iran to go beyond its safeguards requirements. The former include cooperation on a variety of security and economic matters, such as a trade agreement with the EU and cooperation on such issues as terrorism and drug trafficking.

As for negative incentives, the Europeans have stated that they will push the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council if Tehran restarts its enrichment program, stops participating in the negotiations, or ceases cooperation with the IAEA's ongoing investigation of Iran's nuclear activities. …

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