x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Engaging Iran produces results

In the wake of a diplomatic breakthrough in talks between Iran and the P5 plus one nations - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - the Islamic Republic's nuclear intentions remain unclear but the risks of confrontation seem, at least for now, to have been diminished. Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, arrived in Tehran on Saturday to arrange for inspections of a recently disclosed uranium enrichment site.

In the wake of a diplomatic breakthrough in talks between Iran and the P5 plus one nations - the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - the Islamic Republic's nuclear intentions remain unclear but the risks of confrontation seem, at least for now, to have been diminished. "Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, arrived in Tehran last night to arrange swift access for his inspectors to a recently disclosed uranium enrichment site after unexpectedly productive talks between Iran and six world powers," The National reported. "Iran's agreement to allow scrutiny of the facility was reached at Thursday's landmark meeting in Geneva. The international community has called for inspections within two weeks of the site, which is deeply etched into a heavily fortified Revolutionary Guards mountainside complex near Qom, a Shia holy city." Gary Sick described what the meeting accomplished. "Iran agreed to permit inspections of its new site. The Western negotiators came up with a clever ploy to permit Iranian low-enriched uranium (LEU) to be sent to Russia for further enrichment, probably from about 5 per cent to about 20 per cent, and then transported to France to be fabricated into fuel rods to feed the Iranian research reactor (ironically given to Iran by the United States in an earlier day), which is used to produce isotopes used for medical purposes. This had many dimensions. First, it reduced the Iranian LEU stock below the level required to produce a nuclear device. Second, it established the principle that Iranian enrichment could be conducted outside the country. But third, it promised to provide Iran with uranium enriched well above the level required for nuclear power reactors (but not yet at the level required for bomb-building). And lastly, it tacitly acknowledged Iran's right to produce enriched uranium. Nothing in the reports we have seen to date indicate that the Western interlocutors insisted on the previous red line that Iran should abandon its enrichment program. "Finally, the two sides agreed to meet again later this month. At a minimum, that suggests that they believed there was more to be discussed. "Both sides evidently came prepared to behave civilly, to make some small but important concessions, and to initiate a process of negotiation that has been on ice almost since the moment that George W Bush decided, for arcane reasons of his own, to declare Iran (which had just finished working closely with the United States to establish a new civil government in Afghanistan) a charter member of the Axis of Evil." A US State Department background briefing recounted in greater detail what happened in the meeting. "During the plenary and on the margins and during our sidebar discussion... we discussed the question of the Tehran research reactor. And maybe a little background would be helpful. This is a research reactor which has been in operation in Tehran for decades, producing medical isotopes under strict IAEA safeguards. The last supply of fuel for this reactor, which is at roughly 19.75 per cent LEU, was supplied by the Argentine government in the early 1990s and it's going to run out in roughly the next year, year and a half. "Iran came to the IAEA a few months ago with the request to replace this supply. The IAEA consulted us and some others, some other members, and to make a long story short the United States and Russia joined together in a proposal to the IAEA which the IAEA subsequently conveyed as a response to the Iranians, to use Iran's own LEU stockpile as the basis, as the feedstock for the reactor fuel that's required. "This would then entail taking its LEU, which is enriched to about 3.5 per cent, enriching it up to 19.75 per cent in Russia, which the Russians have now publicly confirmed that they're prepared to do, and then fabricating that into fuel assemblies which can be used at this safeguarded reactor, and the French have now confirmed their willingness to play that last role. Those are the basic details involved in the proposal. The potential advantage of this, if it's implemented, is that it would significantly reduce Iran's LEU stockpile which itself is a source of anxiety in the Middle East and elsewhere." Although it had been widely reported prior to the Geneva talks that Iran had no intention of discussing its nuclear programme, it was Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself who brought attention to the fact that the refueling of the Tehran reactor was one of the items on the agenda. "As I said in New York, we need 19.75 per cent-enriched uranium. We said that, and we propose to buy it from anybody who is ready to sell it to us. We are ready to give 3.5 per cent-enriched uranium and then they can enrich it more and deliver to us 19.75 per cent-enriched uranium," he was reported by Agence France-Presse saying on Wednesday. After the unexpected advances in the Geneva talks, The New York Times reported: "This is not the first time that Western officials have left discussions with their Iranian counterparts thinking they had a deal, only to see it melt away. In 2007, European diplomats said they thought they had wrung a concession from Iran on the same issue, enriching uranium outside the country for use in Iranian reactors, only to have Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reject the idea as an infringement of Iran's sovereignty. " 'That's the big 'if,' isn't it?' a senior Obama administration official said. 'Will they do it? No one wants to do a premature victory lap.' He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly about the issue. "There are some circumstances that would seem to favour Mr Obama, analysts said. Fresh from the turmoil in Iran after the disputed presidential election in June that secured a second term for the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government is 'fighting on three fronts,' said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies programme at Stanford University. 'They're fighting with the people of Iran, they're fighting within themselves, and they're fighting with the international community. They've just decided that they can't fight a three-front war, so they're trying to lower the tension on the fight with the international community, at least.' " In The National, Tony Karon wrote: "If Iran had been going hell-for-leather to turn its stockpile of enriched uranium into bomb materiel - as Israel and many hawks in the US have claimed, warning that Tehran is as little as a year away from weapons capability - then Thursday's deal is a setback. But if Iran has simply been assembling legitimate civilian nuclear technology that could give it a 'breakout capacity' to build a nuclear weapon quickly should it choose to opt out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, then the new agreement is a net gain, because it reflects a tacit acceptance of uranium enrichment, under international scrutiny, on Iranian soil. "For the West, engaging with the reality of Iranian uranium enrichment is the only game in town for now. It leaves Iran with 'breakout capacity', but the world would have advanced warning if Iran opted to break out of the NPT and would have an opportunity to respond. Iran is also offering to strengthen the safeguards that can help stop this from happening. "If the relationship is properly managed, the two sides will be able to slowly strengthen engagement in ways that diminish the likelihood of Iran deeming it necessary or wise to break out of the NPT. In the end, the best safeguard against a nuclear-armed Iran is to integrate it into a regional and global security order in ways that minimise threats to its security and that of its neighbours. That's going to be an arduous journey, but it appears to have begun in Geneva last week."

pwoodward@thenational.ae