Joshua PollackIran: What Sort of a Deal?

I do hope I won’t have to eat these words in a few hours, but here goes: Don’t be distracted by the Sturm und Drang from Vienna. Despite Tuesday’s events — which converted multilateral negotiations into some combination of bilaterals and proximity talks — the odds are quite good that the IAEA soon will be able to announce a deal between Iran and the American-Russian-French sides.

The noise around the role of France looks like Iran’s effort to see what it can gain by exploiting differences between Paris and Washington. (These were previewed in Sunday’s Post by Glenn Kessler.) Any wily negotiator might do the same.

But if the Foreign Ministry document discussed here earlier is accurate (see: France’s Role in the LEUTRR Deal, October 9, 2009), it will be tough to exclude France from any refueling arrangements for the Tehran Research Reactor, since only French and Argentine industry make the type of fuel assemblies used there.

To save face, some sort of subcontracting arrangement might be ginned up. On the substance, though, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is sticking to his guns:

Kouchner indicated that Paris was ready to bow out of formal participation in the deal but would not compromise on insisting that Tehran ship out most of its enriched material.

If Iran accepts, “it must be before the end of the year, there must be at least 1,200 kilograms — on that we won’t back down,” Kouchner told reporters in Paris.

And whatever Iran’s precise reasons for initiating these talks back in June — the same month as the Presidential elections — it is hard to see them walking away now. As Nima Gerami and James Acton remind us, an IAEA Board of Governors meeting is coming up in late November, with the Qom issue looming large. The dispute over the weaponization file hasn’t gone away, either. Now is the time for Tehran to strike a bargain.

Update. Right on schedule:

Caution: Do Not Oversell

It’s easy to get absorbed in the minutiae of site-specific safeguards and takeback arrangements, so let’s keep in mind what the parties really seem to be getting. Iran can duck the worst of the fallout from the Qom affair and gain implicit acceptance of its enrichment activities. (Emphasis on “implicit.”) The P5+1 can put time back on the clock by getting that 1,200 kg LEU out of the country. And in the implementation phase, the sides will be able to test each other’s intentions and create some trust at the working level, assuming there are no major hitches.

Here’s how a nameless insider put it to Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor:

With this plan, “we are buying something like seven to 10 months,” says a senior European diplomat in Washington with close knowledge of the nuclear talks. “Perhaps step by step, we could build something out of this.”

IAEA DG Mohamed ElBaradei has gone even further, with heady talk about a grand bargain.

There are just a couple of problems here.

First, it’s not necessarily a matter of seven to ten months. There are at least 50 IR-1 cascades now installed at Natanz, although many were still under vacuum in August (see: Twenty-Two Cascades Under Vacuum, August 28, 2009). According to Alexander Glaser, a single cascade of 164 IR-1s could be expected to produce up to 113 kg of 3.5% enriched LEU per year. Discount the efficiency of operations somewhat (Geoff Forden suggests 85% based on past performance at Natanz), and Iran could recreate 1,200 kg of 3.5% enriched LEU in a shade over four months using 36 cascades. With 54 cascades going, it would take less than three months.

[Update | Dec. 6, 2009. This estimate depends on what is almost surely an overestimate of the separative power of the IR-1. Glaser cites Mark Hibbs’ Jan. 31, 2005 article in Nuclear Fuel, which describes the separative power of the URENCO equipment on which the IR-1 is based. For further explanation, see here.]

I’m not predicting that Iran will go flat-out to recreate its present LEU stockpile, but I would expect them to keep enriching at some rate. That rate may vary; having discovered what sort of safeguarded LEU stockpile the P5+1 are prepared to tolerate, the Iranian side might seek to influence the pace and urgency of future talks by the pace of operations at Natanz.

Second, we cannot really expect this narrow, technical transaction to bring about a sea change in relations. For a preview of how the Iranians are likely to sell it to their own public, consider this item from the IRIB news agency, which couches the EUP export as an Iranian demand:

The Islamic Republic of Iran demands that up to %5 of enrichment for Tehran’s research reactor to be done in Iran and then be sent to one of the three countries (Russia, France or America) for more enrichment.

The outcome, we can be sure, will be touted in Tehran as a victory — meaning, of course, a defeat for the other side. That’s the political context in which these talks operate. Future rounds probably won’t be much different. Actually reaching a grand bargain on all the issues dividing Iran and the West would deprive the Islamic revolution of any substance; forget it. These are nuclear talks, with perhaps some excursions into hostage negotiations. (There is precedent for goodwill gestures.) The real challenge before the P5+1 is to decide what it really wants most — Zero enrichment and reprocessing in Iran? Significantly strengthened safeguards? — and how to get there.

Hat tip: Anonymous Analyst.

Update. In his statement to the press today, ElBaradei returned to the theme of a grand bargain:

I very much hope that people see the big picture, see that this agreement could open the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the international community.

It’s good to have a vision. But it’s also wiser to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the other way around.

Comments

  1. Ataune (History)

    Two short comments:

    P5+1 (or E3+3) don’t share exactly the same interests in dealing with Iran nuclear rights and the latter is shrewdly playing one against the other. Look for example at the way France, the weakest link, was targeted and Russian got the best out of this deal, to be made yet.

    Iran’s perception is not a zero sum game. Iran is looking for a win-win situation. But obviousely there will be some winners and some loosers at the end of THIS game. My intuition is telling me that Iran doesn’t mind having the US on the winning side (and maybe Russia on the loosing one).

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    Iran touting the outcome as a victory is a positive sign. It suggests they’re serious about the negotiations.

  3. hass (History)

    Why not accept Iran’s long-standing compromise offers that would place limits far beyond any legal obligation on Iran’s enrichment program, including joint participation by the US in Iran’s nuclear program? Seems to me that IF you’re REALLY serious about non-proliferation, that’s the best solution. On the other hand, if you’re really just interested in trying to monopolize enrichment technology for yourself, and are also looking for an excuse to vilify Iran, then you will continue to ignore Iran’s perfectly reasonable offers and continue to use “non-proliferation” as an excuse for scaremongering.

  4. FSB

    wow — still separating the spam from the true wonk? C’mon dude…this is blog…on with the comments, whether you agree with them or not…

  5. Josh (History)

    Patience, patience. If I’m too slow in getting to the comments, you can always ask for a refund!

  6. nick (History)

    Discussion of “zero enrichment” is a tried and failed concept: IT WILL NOT WORK! David Sanger’s piece in NYT today is still painting a picture of ZE as the goal of this White House; I hope Samore and others will get over it and move on towards tightening the inspection regime and perhaps discuss even AP, which is far more difficult for IRI to accept, since neither Egypt or Saudi’s are on board for that one.

  7. YK

    Enforcing zero enrichment in Iran is also in direct contravention of the letter and spirit of the NPT.

    It is the accusers, not the accused, who have breached the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The long-established nuclear powers have manifestly failed to meet their treaty obligation to pursue negotiations toward nuclear disarmament, while Iran is entitled under the treaty to enrich uranium for nonmilitary purposes.

    The UN Security Council, in demanding that Iran permanently cease uranium enrichment, assumes that it has the right to abrogate international treaties. It should, instead, declare that Israeli and American threats (“all options are on the table…”) to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities are a threat to international peace.

    Better still, tell Iran that if it forgoes its rights as a signatory of the existing international nonproliferation treaty in a fully verifiable form, the Security Council will ensure that Israel becomes a signatory and surrenders its nuclear weapons. The collective national interests of the West demand no less.
    Yugo Kovach
    Dorset, United Kingdom

  8. bts

    This was another stupid move on the part of Iran.

    If Iran can’t make its own fuel then what’s the point of enrichment? Already UN says Iran’s enrichment program is entirely illegal. This only adds to the demand that Iran should get rid of this program, and Iran says they won’t do it.

    Iran also makes itself look incompetent, and this makes Iran look more dangerous. I mean nobody wants to see an idiot to be messing around with the nucleus and rockets. We see this in the analysis which says Iran can’t make a simple fuel rod (yet, Iran could potentially make nuclear bombs, ICBM, space ships etc.)

    There is no way to back down either. Now everybody is expecting Iran to ship out its uranium. Iran will get nothing in return except more threats of “crippling sanctions” and bombing etc. just as in the past.

  9. hass (History)

    The Iranians suspended enrichment for what was supposed to be 6 months during the Paris Agreement negotiations with the EU-3 — who proceeded to drag out the process for 2 years, and then when pressed by Iran, finally demanded that Iran permanently abandon enrichment (contrary to the terms of the Paris Agreement itself.) Iran showed flexibility, and was shafted. They’re not going to simply “trust” that their uranium is going to be returned when some new excuse can always be cooked-up by the West to undo any such agreement by Iran, as Iran has experienced many times in the past. After all, Iran has yet to get an ounce of uranium out of its billions invested in the French enrichment facility.

  10. Arnold Evans (History)

    The West, especially the French do not understand that Obama needs Iran more than Iran needs Obama now.

    Iran was prepared to make a face-saving gesture for the United States by shipping an amount of LEU out of the country that has little long term significance since it’ll be replaced in exchange for the US backing down on its unenforceable stance that Iran not enrich uranium – a stance John Kerry called stupid in June.

    On its own merits, the LEU transfer was a bad deal from the start, but it wasn’t intended as a good deal, but as a gesture of magnanimity on the part of the Iranians.

    After the Republican Guard generals were killed last week, Iran has no problem embarrassing Obama by daring him to either impose sanctions that will accelerate Iran’s enrichment program, bomb Iran which will start a war that spreads immediately to Iraq and Afghanistan, or back down, continue accepting Iranian enrichment without any gesture and open himself to domestic criticism.

    France was not helpful here, but I think more important was the attack that killed the generals that took Iran out of any mood to be cooperative with the US. Barack Obama is not a foreign policy president, hadn’t put any intense thought into foreign policy issues before being elected and is now way out of his depth, unable to prevent the US position with respects to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and probably Pakistan from deteriorating into collapse nearly simultaneously.

  11. Josh (History)

    Arnold:

    I think those judgments are quite premature.

    Hass:

    Here’s the text of the Paris Agreement. Where you do see any reference to six months? And what about it would have prevented agreeing on no enrichment?

    You know the saying about different opinions…

    Paris Agreement
    Agreement between Iran, Germany, United Kingdom and France (November 14th, 2004)
    The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Governments of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, with the support of the High Representative of the European Union (E3/EU), reaffirm the commitments in the Tehran Agreed Statement of 21 October 2003 and have decided to move forward, building on that agreement.
    The E3/EU and Iran reaffirm their commitment to the NPT.
    The E3/EU recognise Iran’s rights under the NPT exercised in conformity with its obligations under the Treaty, without discrimination.
    Iran reaffirms that, in accordance with Article II of the NPT, it does not and will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It commits itself to full cooperation and transparency with the IAEA. Iran will continue implementing voluntarily the Additional Protocol pending ratification.
    To build further confidence, Iran has decided, on a voluntary basis, to continue and extend its suspension to include all enrichment related and reprocessing activities, and specifically : the manufacture and import of gas centrifuges and their components ; the assembly, installation, testing or operation of gas centrifuges ; work to undertake any plutonium separation, or to construct or operate any plutonium separation installation ; and all tests or production at any uranium conversion installation. The IAEA will be notified of this suspension and invited to verify and monitor it. The suspension will be implemented in time for the IAEA to confirm before the November Board that it has been put into effect. The suspension will be sustained while negotiations proceed on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements.
    The E3/EU recognize that this suspension is a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation.
    Sustaining the suspension, while negotiations on a long-term agreement are under way, will be essential for the continuation of the overall process. In the context of this suspension, the E3/EU and Iran have agreed to begin negotiations, with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on long term arrangements. The agreement will provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. It will equally provide firm guarantees on nuclear, technological and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues.
    A steering committee will meet to launch these negotiations in the first half of December 2004 and will set up working groups on political and security issues, technology and cooperation, and nuclear issues. The steering committee shall meet again within three months to receive progress reports from the working groups and to move ahead with projects and/or measures that can be implemented in advance of an overall agreement.
    In the context of the present agreement and noting the progress that has been made in resolving outstanding issues, the E3/EU will henceforth support the Director General reporting to the IAEA Board as he considers appropriate in the framework of the implementation of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol.
    The E3/EU will support the IAEA Director General inviting Iran to join the Expert Group on Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle.
    Once suspension has been verified, the negotiations with the EU on a Trade and Cooperation Agreement will resume. The E3/EU will actively support the opening of Iranian accession negotiations at the WTO.
    Irrespective of progress on the nuclear issue, the E3/EU and Iran confirm their determination to combat terrorism, including the activities of Al Qa’ida and other terrorist groups such as the MeK. They also confirm their continued support for the political process in Iraq aimed at establishing a constitutionally elected Government.

  12. bts

    “Here’s the text of the Paris Agreement. Where you do see any reference to six months? And what about it would have prevented agreeing on no enrichment? You know the saying about different opinions…”

    Josh,
    So you mean that was supposed to be a permanent suspension? As in “total abandonment of the enrichment program”, or “closing down”.

    Iran was thinking the suspension was supposed to be temporary. Which is usually what the word suspension implies: “temporary abrogation or withholding” (http://dictionary.reference.com)

    But US/EU were talking about permanent suspension. Their demand was that Iran should not have enrichment technology at all. But they called it “suspension” because it’s makes them more reasonable if they are only asking for a temporary suspension.

    So who is being dishonest? Iran or EU?

    Even if the deal was to abandon the enrichment program (and also the heavy water reactors, reprocessing… and anything else which the international community doesn’t like Iran to have) then EU should hold up to its end of the bargain and give some carrots to Iran as they had promised. But the only thing Iran got was more threats…

    As you have noted yourself elsewhere, the US/EU demand for zero-enrichment was not realistic anyway, nor necessary to stop proliferation. It can also have the opposite effect because if Iran gets pushed in a corner they may decide to leave NPT altogether.

  13. Josh (History)

    bts —

    No need to be so argumentative. The answers to your rhetorical questions are in the text. See below.

    As for the European offer, it’s documented here, along with the text of Iran’s reply. The essence of it was to offer an assured fuel supply in exchange for foregoing a national fuel cycle. And there was more besides — a great deal more than “only more threats.”

    Here is the except of the text on the suspension question.

    To build further confidence, Iran has decided, on a voluntary basis, to continue and extend its suspension to include all enrichment related and reprocessing activities, and specifically : the manufacture and import of gas centrifuges and their components ; the assembly, installation, testing or operation of gas centrifuges ; work to undertake any plutonium separation, or to construct or operate any plutonium separation installation ; and all tests or production at any uranium conversion installation. The IAEA will be notified of this suspension and invited to verify and monitor it. The suspension will be implemented in time for the IAEA to confirm before the November Board that it has been put into effect. The suspension will be sustained while negotiations proceed on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements.
    The E3/EU recognize that this suspension is a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation.
    Sustaining the suspension, while negotiations on a long-term agreement are under way, will be essential for the continuation of the overall process…

  14. bts

    Josh,
    Now you are showing the EU proposal which firmly opposes enrichment. For example it says:

    “a binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities other than the construction and operation of light water power and research reactors”

    This proposal was firmly rejected by Iran. There was no misunderstanding here.

    The Paris agreement is very different. At the very least there seems to be a genuine misunderstanding between the two sides, perhaps caused by the language of the Paris agreement which is deliberately vague.

    Okay, I’ll stop right there. I tend to be over argumentative :-)

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