The Iran nuclear talks have now crossed the midpoint in the six-month timetable for negotiating a final agreement. Both sides have expressed concern at the lack of tangible progress in the latest round of talks, which ended May 16 in Vienna. Iran’s negotiators, however, have called it constructive and insisted that a deal within the time frame is still possible.
If successful, these negotiations will undoubtedly be billed as a prime achievement of multilateral diplomacy in the post–Cold War era; it will garner praise for reducing the potential for war and reversing the escalation of the Iranian nuclear crisis in the turbulent Middle East and perhaps also serve as a stepping-stone for the normalization of Iran’s relations with the West.
The outline of the final deal can be gathered from November’s interim agreement in Geneva, which put a cap on Iran’s nuclear activities and allowed intrusive inspection of its facilities in exchange for modest sanction relief and a tacit acceptance of Iran’s right — under strict conditions — to a civilian nuclear fuel cycle. Since then, the two sides’ negotiators have met on a monthly basis and have signed a confidential 35-page implementation agreement, which went into effect in late January. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently confirmed Iran’s fulfillment of its obligations under the interim agreement. (The deliberate choice of words signified an executive agreement instead of a treaty under Western and Iranian law, which would require parliamentary approval.)
According to Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy chief negotiator, there are still 13 areas of disagreement between the two sides, which will likely consume three or more rounds of high-level talks in addition to meetings among technical experts between now and the July 20 deadline (which may be extended another six months if necessary). The remaining gaps would need to be hammered out by comparing the draft texts prepared by each side at a future round.
So far, reports from Tehran and Vienna indicate that substantial progress has been made with respect to transparency and the system of monitoring as well as the fate of the heavy-water reactor in Arak, which has raised Western concerns about proliferation because once operational, it will produce weapons-capable plutonium. Iran’s offer to redesign the reactor’s core so it will produce substantially less plutonium has been reportedly accepted in principle, and it will likely take several years before the modified reactor is completed.
On transparency, Iran has already allowed more than 7,500 man-days of robust inspections, including more than 100 inspections on short notice, resulting in the IAEA’s certificate confirming the absence of any evidence of illicit diversion of nuclear material. Intent on proving its benign nuclear intentions, Tehran is now on the verge of adopting the IAEA’s intrusive additional protocol, which would expand the inspection system but only if a final deal comes to pass that comprehensively lifts the nuclear-related sanctions on Iran imposed by the United Nations, the United States, European powers and others.
Unfortunately, such a bright prospect for the ongoing nuclear talks is dimmed by signs of Western attempts to revise the agreement. Some influential Washington policy experts (such as Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack) have recommended that sanctions be suspended rather than removed and made dependent on biannual review. But this is at odds with the terms of the Geneva agreement and clearly would put the U.S. negotiators at loggerheads not only with Iran but also with the P5 +1 nations, such as China and Russia, that oppose unilateral Western sanctions against Iran.
Another potential pitfall is the U.S.-led insistence on a significant reduction in Iran’s centrifuges, from the current nearly 20,000 down to 4,000 to 5,000, purportedly to delay breakout capability — the point at which Iran, were it to embark on a nuclear weaponization effort, could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more nuclear weapons — by six months or more. But Iran is unlikely to agree to such a steep reduction and is more amenable to the alternative option of maintaining the current 9,000 operational centrifuges that produce low-enriched uranium under the IAEA’s surveillance cameras. True, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, recently stated that Iran needs some 50,000 centrifuges to meet its growing nuclear needs (it plans to build several more reactors). But for the sake of a mutually satisfactory agreement, Tehran could be willing to forgo an expansion of its centrifuges for the duration of the agreement, along with other transparency measures that would meet Western concerns about breakout potential.
Lest we forget, even by the admission of U.S. nuclear scientists, Iran is capable of producing the 15 to 20 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium needed to build a bomb with only 1,500 to 2,000 centrifuges. Iran has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle by internally manufacturing all centrifuge components, which means it would be impossible to prevent the latent potential of Iran’s dual-track nuclear technology. As I have written before, including in The Harvard International Review and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, it is more prudent for the West to adopt realistic measures that will objectively guarantee that Iran’s nuclear potential is kept perpetually latent. Indeed, a convincing argument can be made that allowing Iran to maintain its current stock of operational centrifuges under robust inspections at low ceilings (of up to 5 percent) for five to seven years is feasible and presents hardly any major proliferation risks.
Given Iran’s factional politics and its powerful hard-liners’ opposition to any excess concessions, the final deal must reflect a face-saving formula or confront a tough sell in Iran. Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of Iran’s parliament, has warned that the West is seeking a “caricature nuclear program” in Iran, which reflects Iranian skepticism about the West’s intentions. A final deal can be reached only by overcoming this suspicion.