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Is a nuclear deal with Iran on the cards?

Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has stated his intention to improve Iran’s ties with the West. This change in tone raised hopes for a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. The recent talks in Geneva were not a breakthrough, but they did restart the dialogue.

Iran’s new president

Iranian missile warning sign

© Stephen Finn / Fotolia

Hassan Rouhani’s election in June 2013 has raised hopes for solving the conundrum over Iran’s nuclear programme. Rouhani is emerging as a consensus president: a moderate, with ties to the reformist camp in Iran, and also to the security establishment and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In his capacity of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator (2003-05), Rouhani oversaw what is considered Iran’s most significant concession on the nuclear issue to date.

The Iranian president’s charm offensive of seeking “constructive engagement” with the international community sparked both praise and scepticism about the substance of Iran’s diplomatic overtures.

On the one hand, positive steps have been noted. For example, he has appointed an, on balance, moderate, conservative cabinet, including a number of members with links to the West, and overseen the release of some political prisoners. He has also given the Foreign Affairs Ministry competence for the nuclear discussions, although some contend that unofficially the hard-line Supreme National Security Council still oversees them. And finally, he has enabled the first direct contacts between the Iranian and United States (US) leaderships in 35 years. Significantly, Rouhani expressed Iran’s readiness to restart immediately nuclear talks, while insisting on Iran’s right to enrichment within a peaceful nuclear programme.

On the other hand, Israeli leaders have cautioned against Rouhani’s deceptive approach and pushed for the maintenance of pressure (economic and military) on Iran, as did some members of the US Congress. In the region, the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Turkey consider a US-Iran rapprochement a threat to their interest. Moreover, some experts question the real authority of the president, since the Ayatollah, while supportive for now of Rouhani’s actions, still retains the final say over any policy. Moreover, hard-liners in Iran who oppose a nuclear deal and outreach to the US may constrain any policy implementation.

The motivations for re-engaging with the West apparently include the worsening state of the Iranian economy, hit by harsh international sanctions. These primarily target Iran’s energy sector, and also severely restrict Iran’s access to the international financial system. The armed conflict in Syria constitutes another impetus, as Syria’s fate could affect Iran’s aspirations to predominance in the region.

EU approach towards Iran

The EU follows a dual track policy towards Iran (engagement and pressure), in order to reach a comprehensive, long-term settlement over the country’s nuclear programme which respects Iran’s right to use nuclear energy for civilian purposes, in compliance with the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Meanwhile, the EU fully implements the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran and has added its own complementary measures. The EU’s High Representative leads the negotiations with Iran on behalf of the E3+3 (France, Germany, the United Kingdom plus Russia, China and the US – also called the P5+1, in reference to the five permanent members of the UNSC plus Germany). Iran’s human rights situation is another EU concern.

In its 2012 resolution on Iran and its nuclear programme, the European Parliament (EP) supported the EU’s dual track approach and its commitment to a diplomatic solution; called on Iran to stop nuclear enrichment that goes beyond its needs for civilian energy use and to fulfil its obligations under the NPT. In addition, the EP expressed support for sanctions, but demanded that these be targeted and proportionate, in order to avoid their negative impact on Iran’s civilian population.

The nuclear issue and the Geneva talks

The NPT bans its signatories (with the exception of the five states recognised as possessing nuclear weapons – China, France, Russia, the UK and US) from enriching uranium on their soil unless they meet tight safeguards and prove that the enrichment is low-level and destined for civilian use. The disagreement between the international community and Iran revolves around Iran’s interpretation of the NPT as allowing it the right to enrich uranium on its soil. It is reinforced by suspicions that Iran is developing nuclear technology not for peaceful purposes, but in order to build a nuclear bomb. The UNSC resolutions addressing the issue require Iran to cease all enrichment activity. On the other hand, Western intelligence agencies affirm that Iran has not yet taken the decision to develop nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, of particular concern are Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpiles and its 186 kilogrammes of 20 percent enriched uranium, which could be rapidly enriched to weapons grade. Also of concern are its 19 000 installed centrifuges, including the 1 000 more advanced IR-2M type expected to become operational soon. Furthermore, it is continuing work on the Arak heavy-water reactor that could provide Iran with a nuclear bomb by using plutonium, and also retains the heavily fortified Fordow nuclear facility. Iran maintains that it is refining uranium solely to produce energy for civilian use and isotopes for medicine.

Advances in Iran’s nuclear programme, the proliferation of sanctions and longstanding mistrust render the prospects of a deal difficult. Moreover, the parties are expected to stick to their main objectives. Iran wants the lifting of sanctions and the recognition of its right to enrich uranium, while the international community needs to ensure it will still have time to intervene before Iran achieves breakout capability (the nuclear weapon capability threshold).

In this context, the 15-16 October 2013 nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the E3+3 (P5+1) countries’ top diplomats were seen as an opportunity and a test of Iran’s commitment. Iran stated its red lines before the meeting (refusal to restrict enrichment or to ship any stockpiles out of the country), although it would negotiate on the “form, amount and various levels of enrichment.” The E3+3 asked for verifiable actions from Iran before any decision on sanctions.

With the West’s previous offer still on the table, asking for the suspension of 20 percent enriched uranium, the reduction or removal from Iran of low-enriched uranium stockpiles, full access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to all Iranian nuclear facilities and the closing down of the Fordow facility, Iran presented its own proposal for a nuclear deal to be reached within a year.

The Iranian proposal reportedly contains a roadmap plan in several stages, the first of which would be to define the “end state” of Iran’s nuclear programme, i.e. the broad lines of what a final deal would look like. Then, concrete steps by Iran to limit its atomic programme would follow, in return for removal of sanctions. Iran also apparently conceded that snap visits by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and lowering uranium enrichment levels (probably below 5 percent) could be part of “a last step” of any deal.

At the end of the talks, an unprecedented joint statement was issued, describing the negotiations as “substantive and forward-looking” and fixing the next meeting for 7-8 November 2013, also in Geneva. In the meantime, expert discussions on technical aspects of the proposal would take place, both within the E3+3 and together with the Iranian representatives. While most parties stressed the positive atmosphere surrounding the talks, others warned against undue optimism. Indeed, one of the major obstacles to a final deal is expected to be the sequencing of any concessions by Iran and any sanctions relief by the West.

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