x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

As talks continue, Iran inches closer to full nuclear capability

The question is how long should the dialogue and negotiations continue

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, has expressed optimism over future talks in Geneva. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, has expressed optimism over future talks in Geneva. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

By choosing to speak in English when he met several members of the international community in Geneva to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Islamic republic’s American-educated foreign minister, revealed a fresh voice for his beleaguered nation.

The meeting involved Iranian representatives – primarily Mr Zarif and Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister – and officials for each of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and the United States) as well as Germany, who together make up the P5+1 group. 

These talks will continue in Geneva on November 7 and 8, as Mr Zarif optimistically noted on his Facebook page. 

Iranian leaders have, to date, primarily viewed the talks as positive and constructive.

After the discussions, Mr Araqchi stated in public that “serious” talks had been conducted in a “highly positive atmosphere.”

Mr Zarif also pointed out that a “balanced approach” should be taken, with emphasis on dialogue and negotiation to ease western-imposed economic sanctions.

The point of this, he suggested, is to show that Tehran has the right to enrich uranium and effectively put an end to the country’s prolonged and crippling economic isolation.

The major question though is how long the dialogue and negotiations should proceed.

Will putting emphasis on intensified talks be an effective approach, considering the Iranians’ current nuclear capabilities and their level of uranium refinement?

To create an answer to this political dilemma, Iran’s current nuclear status and, indeed, changes to it in the last few months should be examined closely. 

Firstly, it is crucial to point out that according to the most recent inspection reports compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear monitoring organisation of the United Nations, Iran’s ability to refine uranium has significantly increased in the last year. Uranium is the raw material for both peaceful nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

Since January, the Iranian nuclear programme has made significant technological gains. The nation has added thousands of advanced centrifuges, with Iranian engineers working on a plant that will be able to process plutonium.

In the past six months, and solely in the country’s principal nuclear facility in the city of Natanz, Iranian authorities have approximately quintupled the number of advanced centrifuges they are using, to more than 1,000. 

Furthermore, the formerly secret facility known as the Fordow fuel enrichment plant, near the holy city of Qom, which holds about 3,000 centrifuges, is believed to have achieved full capacity earlier this year. 

According to a senior US official, this is enough centrifuges to provide the material to build nuclear weapons.

According to the IAEA, Iran built the Fordow site in 2007, with the intent of secretly beginning to enrich uranium.

Two years after completion of the plant, American intelligence services presented the IAEA with concrete evidence, gathered from independent satellite monitoring systems and exile reports, of what was happening there.

While Hassan Rouhani has called for “greater transparency” in Iran’s nuclear plans and activities, the nation has also continued to refuse to allow inspectors access to Parchin, a highly restricted military site located south of Tehran.

Parchin is suspected to be the location where researchers have conducted experiments to test triggers for nuclear weapons, according to the IAEA. 

However, beyond the aforementioned concerns, the critical issue is that Iran has accumulated 185.8 kilograms of uranium enriched to about 20 per cent purity, according to the IAEA. This is considered to be only a short technical step away from the uranium refinement required to make bomb-grade material for nuclear weapons.

In this context, the charm offensive led by the new Iranian president, and supported by Iran’s nuclear delegates, may simply be a tactic to buy more time for the enrichment programme.

Years of dialogue, sanctions and now intensified diplomacy, have not yielded any actual results in changing the calculations of Iranian leaders, nor in their determinations to continue the country’s nuclear activities.

Every few years, a new clandestine site is discovered by satellites and intelligence agencies, with Iranian leaders still not allowing the inspection of some crucial nuclear sites. 

Iran’s foreign minister and his nuclear team promised that in six months they would reach a deal with the West, the IAEA and the P5+1 regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. However, the Iranian side has made it clear that Iran has the right to continue enriching uranium.

According to many experts and the Institute for Science and International Security (an anti-proliferation monitoring group based in Washington DC) Tehran’s current nuclear pace can theoretically create adequate bomb-grade uranium by the middle of 2014. 

Considering the level of uranium refinement, technological advancement, and secrecy of certain sites, Iranian leaders need to buy only a bit more time to reach the so-called breakout capacity. 

Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar, is president of the International American Council in Washington DC. He is on the board of the Harvard International Review and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University