Dealing with Iran

The question remains where the present negotiations will lead.

October 21, 2014 21:27
3 minute read.
Hassan Rouhani

Hassan Rouhani. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Expert-level talks between Iran and the six world powers (the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) are scheduled to resume today.

Unfortunately, as the November 24 deadline approaches, pessimism has grown regarding the chances that the negotiations will bring about their express goal: preventing the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon and assuring Iran’s program is exclusively peaceful.

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At the very least, any deal must be structured so that Iran cannot one day make a dash to build a nuclear weapon without the world having enough warning to intervene.

Iran’s enrichment capacity should be reduced to the point where it would take a year or more to produce enough weapons grade material for one nuclear bomb.

One of the major obstacles to reaching a decent deal, however, is the inability of the sides to agree on how many centrifuges Iran should be allowed to possess for its uranium enrichment program. Though there are disputes among them – with China and Russia taking a more lenient view of Iran’s nuclear program – negotiators from the so-called P5+1 want Iran to drastically reduce the number of centrifuges it has.

In all, the Iranians have 19,000 centrifuge machines, which are central to the enrichment process, 10,000 of which are operational. The US has proposed cutting the number of operating centrifuges to around 1,500 or so.

But the Iranians actually want to increase the number of centrifuges beyond 19,000. Earlier this month, a graphic was posted to the Twitter account of the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanding that enrichment capacity be increased to 190,000 separative work units, which translates into many times Iran’s present output capacity.

The Iranians claim they need these centrifuges to fuel nuclear energy reactors like the one at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. But this is not true. Iran does not need such a huge capacity for purely civilian uses. Russia is already providing fuel for Bushehr and can do so indefinitely.

In other words, the Iranians are lying. And they will continue to lie because they have no intention of giving up their march toward nuclear weapons capability.

In theory, there are other ways of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful besides focusing on centrifuges. For instance, Iran could be allowed to retain centrifuges in exchange for agreeing to stockpile uranium in powder, rather than gas, form so as to expand the breakout period.

But that would entail a basic element that is lacking in the talks – trust. And a central element of any deal with Iran must include on-demand access to Iranian facilities – including military facilities. Ensuring such access is provided also depends on fostering a minimum of trust between Iran and the P5+1.

Iran’s mendaciousness is nothing new. The present nuclear talks come after years during which the UN Security Council and other international organizations have determined that Iran has not met its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that it has taken numerous steps – often clandestinely – to undermine those obligations. While Iranian leaders have insisted repeatedly that they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons, the evidence has shown to the contrary.

The question remains where the present negotiations will lead. Both Iran and the P5+1 now seem intent on not extending negotiations beyond the November 24 deadline.

If this means that the P5+1 will end negotiations rather than sign a bad deal, this is a good sign. It would allow sanctions against Iran to be put back in place and would put a military option “back on the table.”

If, however, the P5+1 chooses to sign a bad deal rather than break off talks with no deal at all, this would severely complicate the situation. The sanctions regime painstakingly put in place over the years would disintegrate and the military option would become highly unlikely. As soon as it became clear that Iran was being allowed to become a threshold nuclear power, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would demand a similar status – setting off a nuclear arms race in the region.

This must not be allowed to happen. P5+1 negotiators should keep this in mind as they sit down this week in Vienna with their Iranian counterparts.

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