IRAN: Three Days Before the Nuclear Negotiations Deadline
This blog is intended to clarify what to look for if a deal is signed on Monday and if no deal is in place, explain where the remaining gaps are and what the continuing discussions will be about.
The Israeli Intelligence Service (Mossad – HaMossad leModiʿin uleTafkidim Meyuḥadim) yesterday indicated that there will be no deal signed by the 24 November deadline, though Mossad also let it be known that a deal is much closer to a conclusion than it was in July, the original deadline. Britain has been promoting an extension rumoured to be until March. France has been promoting a harder line in the talks. Obama via John Kerry is in Vienna for the last minute negotiations letting it be known that there is a 50% chance of the talks being concluded. Neither the US nor Iran are willing to consider an extension at this time, though there remain significant gaps between Iran and the P5+1 (UN Permanent Members of the Security Council + Germany). Marzieh Afkham, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, went out of his way two days ago to scotch all rumours that Iran is considering an extension to the talks. But whether a comprehensive (unlikely) or a framework agreement is concluded, there will, of necessity, be continuing talks which will be both substantive and about implementation.
What is the problem? There is no one problem. There are many. Some of them impact on other countries than Iran. For example, if Iran signed a deal on Monday, Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s share of oil exports would be threatened as Iran sought, according to Iranian Oil Minister, Bijan Zanganeh, to double its exports as soon as the sanctions regime is lifted. Russia as part of the P5 has no incentive to quickly conclude a deal.
The interim agreement signed by all parties provided for the release of Iran’s locked up funds. This week alone, India announced the release of US$400 million of frozen oil money largely by Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd. and Essar Oil. A few other sanctions provisions were lifted. On the one hand, this eased the pressure on Iran. On the other hand, until the controls on oil exports and on financial dealings with Iran’s Central Bank are lifted, Iran remains under considerable pressure.
One central debate was whether the agreement would or would not include the military plans for delivering nuclear weapons, that is, the nuclear weapon delivery systems that are integral of the nuclear enrichment program. Thus, the first and foremost issue in the deal with Iran is over what can be negotiated. Iran interpreted the agreement as applying only to its nuclear enrichment program and Iran’s capabilities for making a nuclear weapon, but none of its other military initiatives. So leading spokesmen in the Iranian government have accused the US of wanting everything under a nuclear deal. For example, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has said all along that negotiations are about the nuclear program and nothing else, at the same time as he defended a nuclear deal with the P5+1 as long as it is consistent with Iranian values.
Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes in order to reduce Iran’s dependence on oil. Iranian conservatives have argued that the USA is not simply interested in a nuclear deal but has two other major goals – first, hegemony in the region for which the US wants intelligence on the Iranian military, and, second, an overthrow of the Iranian values in place since the Revolution, using a human rights agenda to accomplish that end. Iran’s objectives, on the other hand, are far more modest and, as they argue, consistent – the removal of the sanctions. They presumably mean “all” the sanctions, though Iran has not indicated whether the removal can be staged over time or exactly how they are to be removed. Ali Shakhani, Supreme National Security Council Secretary, insisted that the negotiations have no point unless they are about total removal of the sanctions, a point reiterated by Ibrahim Aghamohammadi, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.
However, none of the close observers of the negotiations expect a deal that will provide for immediate removal of all the sanctions, if only because the sanctions endorsed by the US Congress in 2011 embraced many additional issues on top of the nuclear program – abuse of human rights being a major one. However, the sanctions on Iranian oil exports and on financial transactions with the Central Bank have had a crippling effect on the Iranian economy. One possibility is to separate the UN sanctions regime from the much larger American sanctions regime, and then further separate sanctions against the Central Bank from the sanctions on oil exports. But this is a possibility that Iran has been unequivocal in declaring as unacceptable. Removal of all sanctions or no deal. However, is a deal possible if it removes all sanctions over time and dependent on performance? Iranian spokesmen insist not, and very certainly not if the conditions include anything else in addition to the nuclear enrichment program.
Behind all the grandstanding and effectively using the media to negotiate outside the meeting room in Vienna, Iran has a credibility problem. Though it has followed through on the vast majority of agreements included in the interim Iran/P5+1 Plan of Action, Iran still falls short in specific areas. This allows critics of the negotiations to insist that Iran is cheating. For example, for the first time Iran recently began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) into the IR5 centrifuge at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz leading the P5+1 to charge Iran with violating its commitment to freeze its centrifuge activities at Natanz. When the US raised the issue with Iran. Iran responded by pledging to halt feeding the centrifuge while, at the same time, denying that feeding the centrifuge was a violation of the interim agreement. Whether or not total cessation of feeding the centrifuge may or may not have taken place deliberately, the effort was a clandestine one. Why did Iran not report on its resumption to the IAEA? Further, whether or not the freeze included the Natanz centrifuges, the resumption of this activity seemed to be in clear violation of the principle of a freeze on uranium enrichment.
Another possible source of difference between the two sides may be over the nature of a verifiable procurement channel so that Iran could continue its nuclear role but not its nuclear weapons ambitions. I had thought this problem had been resolved through the use of Russia. I think this is true with respect to nuclear materials. But there remain serious obstacles concerning equipment. For the agreement to work, Iran must be allowed to import items relevant to its peaceful use of nuclear energy, but not goods or equipment related to a nuclear weapons program. Since it is very difficult to monitor such a corridor, particularly since so much of the monitored material will be dual-use, one of the most difficult objectives in the agreement will be to create a monitoring architecture that can do the best possible job to prevent arousing the suspicions of the P5+1 or, on the other end, making the Iranians resentful that the monitoring system is interfering with Iran’s sovereign rights. One option may be to arrive at a second agreement three days hence and require the monitoring architecture – including control, licensing, approval, intelligence, inspection, detection, verification, investigation, disruption and penalty mechanisms – to be thrashed out by a subsequent deadline. Alternatively, the agreement could be signed with a ban on importing dual- use materials until a period of further confidence-building had passed, a more likely scenario, for without the monitoring architecture, the agreement is worthless.
The above is particularly important since Iran has all along been determined to isolate its military technological developments from its nuclear enrichment program and President Hassan Rouhani has openly boasted about Iran’s intentions and record in breaching sanctions in this area. Given this record and that pledge, how does the international community prevent an increasingly illicit, secret and sophisticated sanctions-busting regime from impacting on Iranian trade in illegal dual-use imports for the nuclear industry, not so much for the uranium imports, which will be in excess supply for many years to come in Iran, but other raw materials, replacement equipment and spare parts for illegal dual-use imports for the nuclear weapons industry – such as vacuum pumps, pressure traducers, lasers and frequency converters?
This clearly implies that all sanctions cannot be lifted, but the well-developed UN and western sanctions regime should continue to enforce import controls in this area. This is a particularly important item in a potential agreement since, as nations enter into lucrative trading arrangements with Iran in a post-agreement era, there will inevitably be a growing temptation to be more and more forgiving and to look aside or ease up on attention to bans as these economic relations develop. This is particularly important since China, as one of the P5, already has a reputation for weak export controls. How then will the agreement provide for minimizing and managing procurement risks in the monitoring architecture? How long will the monitoring regime have to be in place?
By Tuesday, we will be in a better position to know.