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18 Feb. 2014: Only a pragmatic approach to Iran’s nuclear programme will yield results

Today’s negotiations—which include representatives of the European Union (EU), France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (EU/E3), together with China, the United States and Russia (+3), and Iran—have two objectives. First, to agree on additional interim steps, beyond those in the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), for Iran to verifiably demonstrate the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme, including addressing and resolving allegations of possible military dimensions (PMD) geared towards developing a deliverable nuclear weapon, and to agree on a final comprehensive solution regarding the nature and extent of Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, to agree on the modalities of lifting and removing all multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran's nuclear programme.

The negotiations take place against the backdrop of vehement opposition by Israel and many members of the US Congress. Opponents argue for a complete cessation of uranium enrichment in Iran as well as the dismantling of significant elements of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle that might have the potential for use in a nuclear weapon programme. They have also set out detailed conditions for Iran’s nuclear activities, including the closure of the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow (as well as the heavy-water reactor currently being constructed at Arak), and an onerous verification and monitoring regime.

However, maximalist demands can lead to only one result: stalemate and failure. In contrast, the approach of the administration of US President Barack Obama focuses on resolving the outstanding issues concerning the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme and furthering the verification authority and role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran, for its part, has thus far kept its word in implementing the JPA. The IAEA has confirmed that, as of 20 January 2014, Iran had taken a significant number of actions, including ceasing enriching uranium above 5 per cent U-235 at the two cascades at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and four cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant previously used for this purpose. The IAEA also confirmed that it had received written communications from Iran in relation to the ‘voluntary measures’ that Iran had agreed to take in the first six months as part of the JPA.

Furthermore, the IAEA and Iran have also agreed on arrangements for increased access by IAEA inspectors to the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, including in relation to weekends and holidays in Iran.

The pragmatic way forward would be for the EU/E3+3 and Iran to agree that Iran would continue to assure the international community through IAEA safeguards and verification that its nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. Iran would continue its suspension of production of uranium enriched to 20 per cent; only produce uranium enriched to under 5 per cent and convert it into reactor fuel on a timely basis; convert with international assistance the Arak reactor to run on 5 per cent low-enriched uranium; continue to refrain from separating plutonium; fully implement the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement; and cooperate proactively with the IAEA in the implementation of safeguards, verification and monitoring.

With regard to the allegations on the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear programme from the 1990s to 2003 or later, the Vienna negotiations need to reach agreement on working through the Joint Commission with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of all issues of concern. A key element would be to resolve the authenticity of the documentation on PMD. An interesting question might be whether the revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden may shed some light on the provenance of this PMD documentation, since the IAEA does not have the capacity to authenticate intelligence information.

Only the IAEA and Iran can definitively and legally resolve the issues concerning the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme and the PMD. Furthermore, given Iran’s full cooperation with the IAEA’s ongoing verification efforts, Iran will soon be no different to Japan, Belgium or the Netherlands in terms of its possible ‘break out’ capability—namely, its ability to make nuclear weapons.

The current negotiations, while important, are essentially political in nature. But they can create conditions which would enable the resolution of the Iran nuclear file by the IAEA and Iran. The issues at stake are too important for politicians to decide in isolation.



Tariq Rauf is the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme.