Iranian confidence-building measures: Real or illusory?

Iran has yet to make its first big concession to prove to the world that it is trustworthy. Failure to do this could doom the whole negotiation process.

Iranian President Rouhani at the UN 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
Iranian President Rouhani at the UN 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
The November 2013 International Atomic Energy Agency periodic report to the IAEA board of governors and the UN Security Council disclosed several interesting facts: No new gas centrifuge machines for the enrichment of uranium had been installed at any of the known Iranian facilities; construction of the IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak was not progressing; the 20 percent enriched uranium UF6 stocks increased very little; and the IAEA concluded an agreement with Iran on the implementation of several inspection rights and the provision of additional information that the IAEA requested.
At first sight, these could be seen as confidence- building measures, designed to reduce tensions in preparation for the upcoming new round of discussions between the P5+1 and Iran.
On the down side, these can also be viewed as minor actions, with no real consequence regarding slowing down or halting Iran’s development of the capabilities for producing nuclear weapons.
There could be several reasons for not installing new centrifuges: there are already enough of these; there is a shortage of materials for the production of centrifuges; the Iranians have decided not to install any more centrifuges of the old and inefficient type, and are waiting for the results of the testing of the new centrifuges (as mentioned in the IAEA report); the Iranians do not want to provoke severe reactions while the negotiations are ongoing.
Some of the reasons for stopping the intensive construction of the Arak reactor could be much the same as for the centrifuge installations. The Iranians continued enriching uranium to the level of 20%, but continued with the practice of converting much of the product to an oxide compound, or transferring the product outside the enrichment establishment.
And, while the agreement between the IAEA and Iran is impressive, it is of very little practical application to the issue of verifying the development of nuclear weapons and related activities.
Moreover, the production of enriched uranium in Iran has not slowed down, contrary to what some in the media have been implying. Iran continued enriching uranium to the level of 3.5% at much the same rate as before, and has accumulated significant quantities of this material. It should be recalled that by achieving this, the Iranians have accomplished some 70% of the enrichment work needed for the enrichment of uranium from its natural concentration of 0.7% to the military grade of 90%.
BY ENRICHING to the level of 20%, some 90% of the work has been accomplished. Thus the potential for a quick “breakout” has been maintained, and if the newer IR-2m type centrifuges are used, this potential will increase, and the time needed for enrichment to military-grade will be significantly shortened.
So, in any case, the result is that these facts can be viewed as calculated actions to reduce tensions and facilitate the discussions and the arrival at an agreement that will be acceptable to Iran.
In showing that they are not pressing with full steam toward the goal of producing nuclear weapons, and that they can behave “reasonably,” they are hoping establish that they will continue to behave in the same manner in the future.
However, what they have done up to now is not nearly enough. Even if one decides to ignore the Security Council resolutions (which brought on the sanctions against Iran), Iran must halt, as a first step, all development work, including the construction of the Arak reactor, stop enriching to 20% and transfer the existing quantities outside Iran, and start providing information to the IAEA concerning the military aspects of their program, as demanded by the IAEA for a long time.
THE NEXT steps must come almost immediately, or any agreement to ease some of the sanctions will be voided immediately.
The application of these first measures will be the real test of the reasons for the above-mentioned apparent manifestations of Iranian goodwill.
The imperfect past of Iran regarding its agreements and signatures (and one should recall the disregard of so called “suspension” agreements and the non-application of the safeguards “Additional Protocol”) should make their opponents more cautious and thus more demanding in the negotiations toward a final agreement on the outstanding issues.
Iran has yet to make its first big concession to prove to the world that it is trustworthy. Failure to do this could doom the whole negotiation process.
The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.