What Gaps? Iran and P5+1 Closer Than They Appear

Iran and the P5+1 have less than a week to iron out the details of a comprehensive nuclear deal and–all this talk about significant gaps and an extension of talks notwithstanding—from all I’ve read I’d say there’s a real shot at settling this decade-long drama. First, there was Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini revealing last week that “the US goal at the nuclear talks is to convince Iran to limit its uranium enrichment capacity to 10,000 Separative Work Units.” This would–more or less–cap Iran’s nuclear program at its current level. Iran deserves as much, having never been in breach of the NPT and suffering the yoke of sanctions for no good reason. It’s a fair offer and one the Iranians are prepared to accept. The New York Times reports Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying “that Iran could accept a deal that essentially freezes its capacity to produce nuclear fuel at current levels for several years.”

Sounds to me as if we can check uranium enrichment off the list of remaining gaps but some are convinced that Khameini has boxed in his negotiating team when he announced that Iran will eventually need an enrichment capacity of 190,000 SWU. I fail to see how this impacts diplomacy. Ali Akbar Salehi has clarified that boosting their nuclear program to an industrial level wouldn’t apply until after the final deal expires. Washington surely wouldn’t have any objections to this as a senior Obama administration official explained to Paul Richter “What choices they make after they get to normal–that is, after a long duration of an agreement, when they will be treated as any other nonnuclear weapons state under the [NPT]–will, of course, be their choice.” So what’s the issue here? Former State Department non-proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick has made a valid point when he noted it “would be terribly unsafe for Iran to use domestically-fabricated fuel in Bushehr.” Fortunately, George Perkovich has found a way around this.

In an article where he takes on “the stickiest sticking point in the nuclear negotiations” he acknowledges that it would be problematic for Iran to fuel Bushehr:

“Iran does not possess the intellectual property necessary to design and produce the fuel [Bushehr] requires. If Iran did introduce self-made fuel into the reactor, its Russian warranties would no longer apply. While it is understandable that a proud country such as Iran would want to operate independently, no other country at such an early stage of nuclear development has been self-sufficient in this area.”

But just because Bushehr has to be fueled by Russia until at least 2021 doesn’t mean that Iran must sit on its heels. As Perkovich suggests, Iran can be guaranteed a multi-year supply of fuel in advance (Russian and European suppliers have been flaky in the past) and in the meantime develop their program until they’ve mastered the technology to enrich at domestic power plants:

“With fuel stockpiled, Iranian technicians could focus on research and development to produce more efficient centrifuges to make fuel for future, indigenously built Iranian power plants… Shifting from an unnecessary, impractical, premature industrial-scale enrichment program to a research and development program whose scale and pace coincide with demonstrated civilian needs would help validate this commitment. Based on the experience of other countries with peaceful nuclear programs, Iran would need at least 15 years to design, site, build and operate a modern nuclear power plant that conforms to international safety, security and liability guidelines. The comprehensive deal being negotiated in Vienna would be fully implemented by then.”

Alright, now we can check concerns about Iran expanding its nuclear program off the list. All that’s left is the duration of the final deal. Washington has said the time-frame has to be in the double digits with twenty years being a number commonly popping up in news reports. But former Iranian nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, insists “This is not realistic; nor does it play to the long-term interests of the P5+1,” because “a two-decade implementation period would endanger the entire arrangement, placing it at the mercy of political changes in Tehran and Washington.” Iran is looking for the accord to last three to seven years. Shorter would be better and I’m sure the Obama administration is sensitive about the possibility of its greatest foreign policy achievement coming undone and will heed Mousavian’s caveat. The length could also be affected by Iran building more trust with the international community by divulging the depth of its past nuclear weapons research.

So, there’s hardly a vast chasm to be bridged by the two sides and an extension definitely isn’t necessary. It could all be wrapped up by Sunday. And it should be put behind us because we can no longer afford to waste any more time and energy on a dispute that was created out of whole cloth by Washington. There are actual crises in the Middle East that cry out for resolution and as soon as we shake hands with Tehran we can begin dousing the sectarian blaze and stabilizing the region.

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