On 15 October 2013, a new round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme began between Iran and the group of major world powers known as the E3+3 (the group is also commonly referred to as the P5+1 and consists of France, Germany, the UK, China, Russia and the US). A second session was held from 7-10 November, with another planned for 20-22 November. Although the talks remain inconclusive at the time of writing, it has been reported that the new Iranian government under President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected on a platform of moderation in June 2013, set out a new course at the October talks. The proposal tabled by Iran was met with some optimism from E3+3 officials. However, this is not the first time Iran has put an offer on the table. Nor is it the first time Rouhani has been involved in the process. Talks have been going on since 2003, and many proposals have been made by both sides only to be rejected by one or the other.
New negotiations, familiar faces: remembering the 2003-2005 talks
As head of the Supreme National Security Council, Rouhani led negotiations from 2003-2005, following revelations of undeclared Iranian nuclear activity. Iran made several offers during this period, including a 2003 proposal for a “grand bargain” with the US to settle all issues of dispute – from the nuclear programme to the Israel-Palestine conflict and tensions over the war in Iraq. The proposal was rejected by the Bush administration, which refused to negotiate with Iran at the time (it reached the US through diplomatic back channels). In March 2005, Rouhani proposed a deal to the then E3 group (France, Germany and the UK) which was directly negotiating with Iran. It included limits on uranium enrichment and increased inspections of the country’s nuclear sites. However, the EU backed the Bush administration position that no enrichment should be allowed on Iranian soil at all.
Iran rejected the E3’s counter-proposals for the same reason, and disagreement over Iran’s “right to enrich” remained a key stumbling block in the coming years. In 2006, the E3 became the E3+3 when China, Russia and the US joined the group after Iran’s nuclear file was transferred to the UN Security Council.
The fuel-swap proposals, 2009-2010
The biggest diplomatic opening came when US President Barak Obama took office in 2009 and a new round of direct negotiations began. The requirement that Iran should suspend enrichment as a pre-condition for negotiations was dropped while Iran’s right to enrich remained disputed.
When Iran requested fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2009, a deal was worked out – this time by the so-called Vienna Group (the US, France, Russia and the IAEA) – whereby Iran would ship the greater part of its enriched uranium out of the country. At that time, Iran was enriching uranium to 3.5%. In return for giving it up, the uranium would be enriched further to 19.75% abroad and converted into fuel pads for use in the TRR. As Trita Parsi has pointed out, since Iran’s own stockpiles would be used, it was possible to argue that the deal would implicitly recognise Iranian enrichment activity. Although not the final word on the nuclear issue, the deal would have scaled back the programme, “while creating more space and promise for additional diplomacy”. However, Iran demanded an additional guarantee that the fuel would in fact be delivered. When the US denied adding further conditions, Iran rejected the deal and started enriching to 19.75% to supply the TRR themselves. The Obama administration in turn set out to build international support for strengthening sanctions against Iran.
In 2010, Brazil and Turkey – endorsed in their efforts by Obama – managed to resurrect the fuel-swap deal. The Iranians agreed to ship out the same amount of enriched uranium (1,200 kg) as suggested in 2009, but this time it would be held in Turkey and shipped back if fuel was not provided in return. Nevertheless, the US rejected the proposal, claiming that Iran’s stockpiles had grown too much and that shipping out the same amount as was proposed in 2009 was therefore insufficient. In addition, as Iran was now enriching to 19.75%, the US considered the deal obsolete. However, Brazil and Turkey complained that Obama had failed to establish these issues as deal-breakers when endorsing their diplomatic efforts.
The years preceding the Rouhani government, 2012-2013
During the 2009 negotiations, it also became public that Iran had built an underground and heavily fortified nuclear enrichment site outside Qom. The E3+3’s demand to shut down the Fordow facility became a pillar of the “Stop, Shut and Ship” proposal which dominated the next major round of talks in 2012-2013. As a first step, Iran was asked to stop enriching uranium to 19.75%, ship out all 19.75% stockpiles and shut down Fordow. In return, pressure would be eased to a limited extent – varying at times from an offer of delivering spare parts for badly maintained civilian aircrafts to an easing of sanctions on gold-transfers imposed only weeks before.
Iran rejected these offers, which in the words of one former negotiator were asking Iran to give up “diamonds for peanuts”. They instead insisted on an up-front recognition of Iran’s right to enrich and an eventual lifting of all sanctions. In an effort to address E3+3 concerns directly in April 2013, Iran offered to stop 19.75% enrichment, convert existing 19.75% stockpiles into fuel, and freeze centrifuge installation at Fordow. This fell short of the E3+3 demand to ship out stockpiles and shut down Fordow. It was to be the last round of negotiations before the election of Rouhani as president on 14 June 2013.
A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran / Trita Parsi, Yale University Press, 2011
Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State / David Patrikarakos, I.B. Tauris, 2012
Iran’s Nuclear Diplomacy: Power Politics and Conflict Resolution / Bernd Kaussler, Routledge, 2014