Iranian Nuclear Negotiations: More than meets the eye?

Perjantaina, 9. lokakuuta 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Timo Behr
tutkija - Euroopan unioni -tutkimusohjelma

Last week’s Geneva talks between Iran and the E3+3 represent another turning point in the seemingly never ending saga surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme. For the first time in thirty years American and Iranian envoys met for direct negotiations. To the surprise of many, Iran appeared pliant and signalled that it would agree to some important concessions. While a new round of talks will take place on October 19th, it is unlikely that further progress will be easy to achieve. Indeed, for the time being, both Iran and the US have fallen back on issuing veiled threats against each other and are engaging in cloak-and-dagger tactics that risk derailing the upcoming nuclear talks.

Tension was already running high before last week’s meeting. Only a few days before envoys met in Geneva, Barack Obama stood shoulder to shoulder with France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s Gordon Brown, when he revealed to a stunned international audience that another secret nuclear site had been discovered near the holy city of Qom. While the revelation of the Qom site cast serious doubts about Iran’s sincerity to come clean on its nuclear record, it also is revealing that the US did not announce the site’s existence much earlier – despite knowing of it for some time. Indeed, it appears likely that the US intended to use the site’s existence as a bargaining chip once talks had failed, but had its hand forced when Iran reported its existence to the IAEA.

Despite both sides’ tactical games, the Geneva talks brought two important concessions. First, Iran agreed that the IAEA would be allowed to inspect and continuously monitor the new facility in Qom. Inspectors will be given access to the site by 25 October. Second, and more importantly, Iran agreed in principle to export most of its stockpile of lightly enriched uranium (LEU) abroad to be turned into fuel for its Teheran Research Reactor. If realized this would be a major development as it would take away Iran’s “breakout” option and provide a breathing space for further talks. It would also mean a major leap of faith for Iran, which would hand over more than three-quarters of its known LEU stockpile to Russia and France for further enrichment and processing. Details of the deal are meant to be agreed during the next round of talks on October 19th.

Despite these concessions, tension is running high between the US and Iran. Determined to keep on the pressure, Obama announced after the talks that “If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then… we are prepared to move towards increased pressure.” Almost simultaneously, the Pentagon announced that it would speed-up the development of a new generation of bunker-busting bombs because of “immediate operational needs.” Iran for its part has sent confusing signals, with a member of the Iranian negotiation team denying that the export of LEU has been agreed upon. Iranian allegations that the US had kidnapped one of its nuclear scientists – Shahram Amiri – earlier this year have also further poisoned the climate.

There seem to be two potential explanations for the reticence both sides have shown this past week. One is that both sides, for different reasons, want to avoid any sign of weakness in front of their domestic audiences. This might be confirmed by the fact that both have pursued the LEU export option through back-channels for some time – Qom notwithstanding. The other is that Iran is still not sincere about negotiations and seeks to come up with excuses to interrupt talks. In that case, the US needs to avoid providing Iran with any excuses to back-paddle and lock in the agreement on LEU as fast as possible. However, this would mean that rather than “talking-tough” to prepare the international community for further sanctions, the US should now employ softer rhetoric and refuse to be drawn into any mud-slinging matches with Iran.

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