As every round of Iran nuclear talks unfolds, the negotiators emerge in public to provide variations on the same mantra: good progress was made; serious gaps still remain. With the end of March deadline for a basic understanding nigh, it is time to bridge these final gaps.
I have long been pessimistic that a comprehensive agreement could be reached. This is because I did not see signs of Iranian willingness to accept the limits on its nuclear program that would be required to ensure that it could not carry out a weapons option. In talks in February, however, Iran agreed to do just that, at least for a decade or more.
In return for sanctions relief, Tehran tentatively agreed to cut back its number of installed centrifuges by two-thirds and to remove all but a small portion of its stockpile of low enriched uranium, presumably by shipping it to Russia for further processing. This combination of limits, along with changes to the way the centrifuges are linked together, will ensure that it would take at least a year for Iran to produce a weapon’s worth of weapons-grade enriched uranium, were it to undertake such a fateful step.
As per the mantra, however, serious gaps remain. Three issues are particularly important: the extent and timing of sanctions relief, limits on nuclear research and development and verification of the absence of nuclear weapons work at military bases and other facilities beyond the current reach of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If a comprehensive deal is to be reached, compromises will be needed on these three sets of issues.
With regard to sanctions relief, there is no chance in the current political climate that the US Congress will agree to remove the sanctions that it imposed by law. To the contrary, most members of Congress are inclined to pile on more sanctions. President Barack Obama has the power to remove the restrictions that he imposed, but he can only suspend implementation of the sanctions that Congress imposed.
Iran’s negotiators understand this; they did not need a condescending letter from 47 Republican Senators explaining, with some mistakes, how the US governance system works. In addition to igniting editorial condemnation from newspapers across America, the only impact of the letter was to undermine US credibility in the talks. As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, the letter thus gave an advantage to the Iranians. They now insist all the more that, given the problems associated with lifting US sanctions, the sanctions imposed by the United Nations be removed in their entirety.
The US and its allies have wanted to keep some UN sanctions in place, at least until Iran satisfies IAEA questions about past nuclear activities of a possible military dimension. On the issue of UN sanctions, it now appears that the US and its allies have agreed to an early lifting. Language is being discussed in their capitals to replace the five resolutions that imposed sanctions over the period from 2006 to 2010.
As of mid-March there is no reported breakthrough on the R&D and additional monitoring issues. For these, it will be incumbent on Iran to accept compromises. If R&D is not restricted, Iran would soon be able to rapidly ramp up enriched uranium output and thus the ability to quickly produce weapons-grade fissile material. If military facilities are insulated from any outside monitoring, concerned nations would have diminished confidence about the absence of secret weapons work.
Enhancing the ability of international monitors to detect undeclared nuclear activities in Iran will be one of the most important outcomes of the talks. Acceptance of the IAEA Additional Protocol is one key step, but given Iran’s record of deception it will need to provide access rights beyond what is included in that instrument. Like the Additional Protocol, these additional verification measures should be in place permanently.
Once the limits on Iran’s enrichment program expire in about 15 years, Iran will be allowed to put in place the industrial-sized program that it has long desired. It will then be incumbent on the IAEA to be able to detect in a timely manner any deception or diversion of nuclear material. Employing a variety of verification methods, the IAEA is confident it can do so. Going beyond material accountancy, the agency’s ‘defence in depth’ concept at declared facilities employs advanced surveillance, unattended instrumentation, environmental sampling, unannounced access and other techniques.
Detecting activity at secret locations presents a greater challenge. Military bases such as Parchin must not be ruled out of bounds. While Iran will not allow unimpeded access to military secrets, some means must be agreed whereby allegations of suspicious activity can be investigated. Providing for such verification is important in its own right, but also to persuade sceptical members of the US Congress that the prospective agreement is indeed a good deal. Without solid verification, Obama will not be able to prevent hawkish senators from his own party from joining Republicans in voting for new legislation that would have the effect of scuttling the talks. Such a vote come could as early as March 24. There is no time to waste.
Mark Fitzpatrick is director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies