WASHINGTON — What kind of nuclear proposal is Iran offering?
So far, nothing publicly. The only agreement reached in the recent opening round of nuclear talks between the Islamic republic and the international powers negotiating with it was to not reveal the contents of their discussions. But that agreement has been kept only in part.
According to some fairly detailed, though unconfirmed leaks, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, gave an hour-long PowerPoint presentation in Geneva on October 16 to an attentive audience.
Most knowledgeable observers acknowledged the seriousness of Zarif’s presentation. But they cautioned that its success could only be measured after the parties engage in detailed negotiations. The second round of talks, which will also be in Geneva, is scheduled for November 7-8.
Here is a breakdown of the key elements in Zarif’s plan based on press reports and on views of leading experts in the field.
Iran has offered, according to reports, to suspend enriching the uranium in its possession to the level of 20%, as it is currently doing. That’s a level that alarms Israel, other neighbors of Iran and the international community because it is easier from that base to enrich uranium further into weapons-grade material.
Iran also pledged to attempt to convert its existing 20% enriched uranium into fuel rods that would be used for civilian nuclear research. The offer would be part of a set of short-term confidence building measures meant to prove to the world Iran’s seriousness. It is widely thought that any long-term agreement will also include a moratorium on high-level enrichment. The Iranian offer did not include any reference to the low-level enrichment of uranium or to the treatment of existing low-enriched uranium stockpiles.
This offer falls short of the maximalist demand being pressed by Israel, which insists that Iran have “zero enrichment” capacity under any agreement. It also fails to meet the requirement made in the past by the United States and its allies to remove the 20% enriched uranium from Iranian soil to a third country.
“It is a fallacy to believe that we can eliminate Iran’s technical ability to enrich uranium,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the independent Arms Control Association. He noted that with 19,000 centrifuges and advanced nuclear facilities in Iran, the West “has passed the point in which we can get to our ideal deal.”
But Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued there is no need to give up on the demand for zero-enrichment. “Iran’s alternatives are bleak,” he wrote. “With each passing day, Iran’s economic predicament deepens and its nuclear program expands.”
The proposal Zarif has put forward reportedly deals specifically with each one of the nuclear facilities over which the international community has expressed concern. According to reports, Iran has offered to turn Fordow, an enrichment facility buried deep underground near Qom, into a research center, to suspend enrichment activity there, and to allow full international monitoring to confirm its suspension.
For Arak, where there is a heavy water reactor that can be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons that is not yet operational, Iran has reportedly offered full access to inspectors. There could also be an arrangement that would remove the spent fuel from the reactor. Tehran has also expressed willingness to limit production in its Natanz enrichment plant. No information was provided regarding Iran’s military facility in Parchin, which Western intelligence agencies suspect has been used for development of weapon systems.
One stumbling block on this issue could be Arak. The West has questioned the need for a heavy water reactor and would find it difficult to accept its existence even under an increased inspection regime.
A key offer in the reported Iranian proposal touches on the work of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Iran has agreed to allow the international monitors, who are currently being limited by the government, to perform inspections, both scheduled and unannounced at all nuclear sites. Iran also expressed its willingness to rejoin the international Non-Proliferation Treaty’s “additional protocol,” which allows inspectors access not only to declared nuclear sites but also to any facility suspected of involvement in nuclear activity.
“I think the regime does not see inspections as a red line,” said Colin Kahl, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East until 2011. According to Kimball of the ACA, increased inspections, combined with Western intelligence activity, “will make it extremely difficult for Iran to build another enrichment facility” and will provide the United States and its allies with sufficient early warning in case Iran decides to break out and build a bomb.
In his presentation, Zarif reportedly offered a two-step process, with each phase taking six months. In the first stage, Iran would engage in confidence building measures, including a suspension of 20% enrichment and a start at converting its existing enriched uranium stockpiles into fuel rods. The second stage would deal with all other issues in dispute. The process would presumably end with a deal under which Iran is allowed to develop a non-military nuclear program and international sanctions are lifted.
This offer could satisfy a clear demand made by the world powers negotiating with Iran that it demonstrate in a tangible way that it is indeed serious in its willingness to resolve the nuclear issue.
Israel and many of its U.S. supporters have been concerned that in the interim, while Iran is making only symbolic concessions, it could win a reversal of some of the sanctions and at the same time keep up a race for the bomb. Most analysts have noted, however, that the expected reward awaiting Iran in the first stage will be only marginal and will not include rolling back the key components of the sanctions regime.
Zarif did not explicitly address the issue of U.S. sanctions, according to reports from Geneva. He instead focused on measures taken by the international community and the U.N.
Iran’s expectation is that a full deal would lead to the lifting of all sanctions and limitations and to the legitimization of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. The challenge, however, is dealing with the interim stage.
“It’s important for the United States not to overplay its hand,” said Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. “If the Iranians get the impression that their concessions only lead to more sanctions, why should they offer concessions?”
As for the long term, members of the international negotiating group have accepted the notion that Iran has the right to maintain a peaceful nuclear program under the parameters set by the NPT.
The day after:
Under the outlines of the Iranian proposal, even after a deal is reached, Iran would still have nuclear capacity. Skeptics, driven in part by stern warnings coming from the Israeli government, fear that even with high-level enrichment suspended, stockpiles in check and an elaborate inspection operation on the ground, Iran could still be capable of breaking out and building a bomb.
Experts acknowledge the possibility but argue it is not likely, since the path to a nuclear weapon would become significantly longer and the chances of getting caught would dramatically increase.