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New US-Iran nuclear talks at the UN

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Update from AIJAC

Sept. 25, 2013
Number 09/13 #04

Reports say that US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Iranian counter-part at the UN this week to discuss a nuclear weapons deal. The Iranians reportedly vetoed a meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and US President Obama following their respective speeches to the UN General Assembly (the full text of President Obama's speech is here.) This Update looks at the background to both these talks and the recent Iranian charm offensive under new President Rouhani, what to be wary of in any such talks, and what end result the US should seek to achieve in any nuclear deal. 

First up is noted Washington Institute for Near East Policy Iran specialist Patrick Clawson. He argues that the Iranian desire to go back to the negotiating table is driven by a combination of sanctions and rising domestic popular anger, but that this is not enough to ensure a deal will eventuate. He says that Rouhani is no reformer, and has given no indication that he will make the  kinds of concessions needed to get a deal to work, but that if sanctions relief is required to get a deal off the ground, it is important to design the sanctions to push Iran in the direction of more democracy. Given popular proclivities, he argues, such change within Iran will also help solve the nuclear stand-off, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. More on the effects of sanctions on Iran comes from Michael Rubin.

Next up are two Israeli top academic specialists in non-proliferation, Ephraim Asculai and Emily Landau. Like Clawson, they note that while Rouhani clearly wants to get sanctions eased, he has given no indication that he is willing to make the concession needed on the nuclear program to facilitate a deal -  and indeed, continues to make claims which are contradicted by the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report while Iran still shows no sign of cooperating with the IAEA. They emphasise that, given Iran's past lying and concealment, the onus must be on Iran to demonstrate, with concrete changes on the ground, that this is not the latest in a long string of Iranian efforts to use tactical negotiations to string things out while the nuclear program continues apace. For their analysis in full, CLICK HERE. A more detailed look at the latest IAEA report and its implications - especially in terms of the short time available for nuclear deal-making - comes from former senior IAEA official Olli Heinonen along with Washington Institute scholar Simon Henderson. 

The final entry comes from US foreign policy expert Robert Zarate, who offers a detailed outline of what a nuclear deal with Iran should achieve if it is not to simply paper over the Iranian nuclear problem. The plan he calls for has three key principles - all uranium enirchment must stop, no re-processing of nuclear fuel can be allowed, and complete and total transparency vis a vis the IAEA. He argues that the key thing to remember is that a nuclear agreement is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and therefore "a nuclear deal with Iran should not be a race to get to 'yes,' but to meet or exceed high standards, lest the deal risk doing far more harm than good." For the rest of the details of his analysis of what is needed in a nuclear deal, CLICK HERE.

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Talk Is Cheap

Patrick Clawson

Foreign Affairs, September 24, 2013

Sanctions might have brought Rouhani to the table, but they won't keep him there.

In 2012, I argued that sanctions against Iran could succeed at bringing Tehran back to the negotiating table but that they were not a strategy in and of themselves. [See "Sanctions Are Only a Stop-Gap"] Occasional (and usually fruitless) talks, after all, would be no substitute for overall stability and political normalization. A more successful long-term U.S. policy, I wrote, should be geared toward building a more democratic Iran. That remains true today. As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani mounts his charm offensive at the UN General Assembly, it is worth remembering that sanctions alone did not bring about the new Iranian attitude. Nor will they be enough to guarantee Iran's cooperation in the future.

Over the last two years, the U.S. and EU sanctions regimes have scored impressive results, mostly thanks to broad international support for, and compliance with, them. Some countries, such as Canada, signed on to tight trade restrictions. Others, such as India, significantly curtailed their purchases of Iranian oil and restricted what Iran could do with the payments for that oil. All told, Iran's useable oil export revenue was around two-thirds less than it would otherwise have been this year. At about $30-$35 billion a year, Iran's useable oil revenue now stands at a level last seen a decade ago. That has compelled the government to dip into reserves and scale back populist initiatives, such as the payments Iranians get each month to compensate for some phased-out subsidies for energy and other goods. That the country now appears ready to bargain reinforces the old Iranian adage that the Islamic Republic never gives in to pressure -- it only gives in to great pressure.

The sanctions, however, are not solely responsible for Iran's change in attitude. Just as important has been the increasing anger of the Iranian people at the deteriorating economic situation there, caused at least as much by the incoherent populist policies of the Ahmadinejad government as by the sanctions. A cleverer regime could have avoided the brunt of Iranian anger, turning it against the United States. But Tehran has not been able to convince the population that it should be enraged at anyone other than Iran's own hard-liners, with their unhelpful economic policies and nuclear stance. These days, Iranians' first priority is fixing the economy. And in that regard, Iranians have shown that they are not willing to continue paying the heavy price -- the foregone oil revenue, the inflation, the unemployment -- for the once vaunted nuclear program. In second place is restoring relations with the outside world, which means reversing isolationist policies such as restrictions on the Internet and satellite television. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a longtime proponent of resistance rather than compromise, recently spoke about the need for "heroic flexibility."

Last, but an even more important cause of Iran's new approach, has been the strengthening of democracy in Iran. June's presidential election was by no means totally fair. But, unlike in 2009, the votes were actually counted. Results were announced many hours, not one hour, after polls closed. And rather than anointing a winner, as he did in 2009, Khamenei did nothing to stop fratricidal competition among the three main conservative candidates. When he appealed to even those Iranians opposed to the Islamic Republic to come out to vote (instead of his usual trumpeting of voting being a show of support for the regime), people got the message: This time, Khamenei would live with the people's choice from among his vetted candidates. A freer election allowed for more serious debate about the country's foreign and security policies, which had previously been taboo. The Iranian people got to hear for themselves how inflexible and unreasonable Iran's previous nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, had been. All the other candidates roundly attacked his positions on nuclear negotiations.

The West had long wanted to see a serious debate inside Iran about the country's nuclear program. That debate finally happened. To be sure, sanctions raised discontent about the impact of the nuclear program, but that did not translate into Iranian policy reforms until the people were given a chance to voice their views. And that would not have happened if Khamenei had not decided to let this election play out as he did. The end result was that the people gave a strong endorsement to Rouhani, the most moderate voice. The lesson for the West is that the more democratic and free Iran gets, the better the prospects for resolving the nuclear impasse. In other words, supporting freedom in Iran is not only the morally correct thing to do, it is also the best way to get Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Rouhani is no reformer. He is a man of the system, which is why he was allowed to run in the first place. He surely wants a deal, but there has been no clear public indication of the terms to which Iran might agree. Presumably, though, Iran and the West already have a pretty good idea of what an agreement would entail on the Iranian side: accepting restrictions on enrichment, shipping most if not all enriched uranium out of the country, greater transparency, and responding to International Atomic Energy Agency queries about past activities.

However, that is only one half of the deal. The other half is what the West gives in return -- specifically, in the form of sanctions relief. So far, the West, the United States in particular, has been less than forthcoming on that. Iranians should be wary: In general, the United States has been slow to ease sanctions. Whether in Libya, Myanmar (also called Burma), or Vietnam, the lifting of sanctions once they were in place took many more years than those governments might have expected. It is sobering that the Jackson-Vanik restrictions that were placed on the Soviet Union in 1974 because of Moscow's limits on Jewish emigration were not lifted until 2012, more than 20 years after those emigration limits -- and the Soviet government -- ceased to exist.

Before ending sanctions, the United States usually wants more than just a reassurance that a deal will be implemented. It wants clear evidence that any deal will be sustained, and it wants progress on other bilateral discussions, too. In Iran's case, this means that Washington would want Tehran to end its support for terrorism and its egregious human rights violations. All that is to say that whatever sanctions relief the United States might offer after nuclear discussions begin will be quite limited. Nor is it clear that the European Union will come to the rescue: its sanctions can only be revoked by a unanimous decision of 28 governments.

The United States might get around the problem by offering relief to the Iranian people even while maintaining tight restrictions on the Iranian government. Already, Washington has been simultaneously tightening sanctions on government-linked institutions while easing rules on citizens, for instance, when it comes to athletic competitions, donations for charity work in Iran, and sales to Iranians of mobile phones and related software. Following a deal, Washington could do even more to end the restrictions that pinch Iranian citizens and private businesses, perhaps by easing visa processing and permitting trade in consumer goods with genuinely private firms. The United States' best hope for better relations with Iran is better relations with the Iranian people, and the United States should focus on what they need and want. Providing modest sanctions relief for the people is only a small step toward supporting democracy, but half a loaf is better than none.

Patrick Clawson is director of research at The Washington Institute.

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The burden of proof is on Iran

By EPHRAIM ASCULAI AND EMILY B. LANDAU

Jerusalem Post, 23/09/2013    
 
Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani is clearly determined to get economic and financial sanctions on Iran lifted. To that end, he obviously must conduct dialogue with the P5+1 world powers, especially with the US; as such, he has – not surprisingly – put out concrete feelers in this direction.

From the US perspective, Iran must take clear steps toward resolving international concerns about the military direction of its nuclear program, and the assumption seems to be that if Rouhani wants to talk, he understands what this will entail.

The problem is that Rouhani has said nothing so far to indicate that he has any intention to reverse course in the nuclear realm. Quite the contrary: He has said Tehran will not even discuss uranium-enrichment suspension.

The International Atomic Energy Agency report of late August underscores that Iran is on track in the nuclear realm, with the worrying information that some 1,000 newgeneration centrifuges have been installed at Natanz and are ready to be tested. These centrifuges spin much faster, and thus have a much greater enrichment efficiency and are more durable than the previous generation – and will greatly improve Iran’s ability to move quickly to nuclear breakout, should it so decide.

Rouhani has said that Iran never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and will not be doing so, but this stands in stark contradiction to IAEA reports on Iran and US intelligence assessments on past activities. The supreme leader of Iran has been hailed for calling for flexibility in dealing with the international community, but his full sentence was that Iran may exercise flexibility for a tactical reason, while not losing sight of its rival and goal.

This is completely in-line with Iran’s approach toward the international community over the past decade; it has displayed impressive acumen at playing a tactical game in nuclear negotiations, while using the time to steadily progress toward its goal.

Rouhani will most likely repeat his conciliatory messages at the UN General Assembly this week, but the first real test of Iran’s nuclear intentions comes on September 27, when a longdelayed meeting with the IAEA is scheduled to take place. Although Tehran’s incessant refrain in almost all Iranian media commentary is that the country has cleared up all of the outstanding inquiries with the IAEA, this is hardly the case.

In fact, the IAEA has a long list of requests it has made of Iran, which include: the application of the Additional Protocol that Iran signed long ago, but did not ratify; responses to the list of military-related aspects of the nuclear program; and updating the Design Information Questionnaire related to the construction of the IR-40 natural uranium reactor at Arak – which has the potential to produce plutonium, a fissile material suitable for the production of nuclear weapons.

The IAEA will also insist on an inspection visit to Parchin, a site suspected of hosting a facility for the development of the weaponization aspects of nuclear weapons, even if it is quite certain that the inspectors will find nothing incriminating there, due to the lengthy cleanup operations carried out by Iran. But this is only a beginning.

In the next round of negotiations, Iran’s potential for nuclear breakout – namely, the ability to produce a nuclear weapon so quickly that the world will find out about it only after it becomes a fait accompli – must be on the table. Stopping activities at Fordow, discontinuing enrichment to 20 percent and removing stockpiles from the country are a first step.

Equally important are dealing with stocks of low-enriched uranium and creating mechanisms to closely monitor and inspect all of Iran’s nuclear activities, including the plutonium route.

These actions have to be accompanied by Iranian transparency regarding its past activities, with special emphasis on the military dimensions – studies and developments of both weaponization and nuclear warheads, partial evidence of which has already been uncovered and presented.

As for Iran’s “inalienable right” to enrich uranium according to the Non- Proliferation Treaty, this was negated after Iran was found by the IAEA and the UN Security Council to be in noncompliance of its treaty obligations.

Tehran could regain this right if it begins to unwind its enrichment program and stops construction of its Arak reactor. It could go on producing electricity from its power reactor at Bushehr, and it could purchase all the isotopes it needs on the free world market. The nuclear fuel for its power reactor could easily be supplied by Russia. This could be a blueprint for a quick and lasting solution to the Iran nuclear issue, including the removal of sanctions. Would Iran do this? According to Iran’s past record, the chance of this is currently not high.

Iran has concealed, lied and acted in contravention of its obligations.

Moreover, while the pressure of sanctions is pushing Iran to talk to the US, there is no indication this has been enough for Iran to consider backing down from its nuclear goal.

It is not enough for Rohani to act according to Lewis Carroll’s immortal lines: “I have said it twice: That alone should encourage the crew… I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.”

In this case, words are not enough – it is the deeds that will count. And the deeds must come quickly enough, or the world will know that Iran has been using the time-buying tactic all over again.

Dr. Ephraim Asculai is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, having joined it following more than 40 years of service at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at INSS and author of Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation.

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Set High Standards for Any Iranian Nuclear Deal


Eager to jumpstart stalled negotiations for a “nuclear deal” with Iran, President Obama is reportedly mulling direct talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when world leaders converge at the U.N. General Assembly next week.  Yet despite a decade’s worth of diplomacy and non-military pressure, the United States and other world powers have failed so far to persuade Iran to halt its drive to nuclear weapons-making capability.  Instead, the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program has only grown.  Even if it is true that Iranian leaders have not made the final decision to assemble a nuclear weapon, Iran not only holds all of the raw ingredients required for an atomic bomb, but also is making technical advances that could rapidly shorten the amount of time it would need to build a nuclear weapon to a matter of months, if not weeks.

While Obama has repeatedly said that it would be “unacceptable” for Iran to get nuclear weapons and that he is keeping the military option “on the table,” it is clear that he remains open to an Iranian nuclear deal.  However, if the United States wants a nuclear deal that does not simply paper over the problem of Iran’s efforts to get rapid nuclear weapons-making capability—but actually resolves that dangerous problem—then U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should debate now what hurdles a nuclear deal ought to clear for it to effectively and durably cap Iran’s destabilizing nuclear ambitions.

High Standards for an Iranian Nuclear Deal

If the United States chooses to resume nuclear talks with Iran, it should negotiate with clear purpose and without any illusion.  Any Iranian nuclear deal should serve to punish Iran for continually violating the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968 (NPT), NPT-required International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards agreements, and numerous resolutions by the IAEA Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council, and moving dangerously close to nuclear weapons-making capability in defiance of the international community.  The deal should also impose and enforce changes to Iranian nuclear behavior that provide a model for other NPT signatories as to what constitutes responsible nuclear behavior. 

For any proposed nuclear deal with Iran to be effective and durable, it therefore should meet the following high standards:

(1)  Any Iranian nuclear deal should require “zero enrichment” to close off Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb using centrifuges to produce weapons-usable high enriched uranium.

  • The international community’s demand that Iran verifiably stop uranium enrichment is more than a decade old.  On September 12, 2003, the 35-nation IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution urging Iran “to suspend all further uranium enrichment related activities.”  On July 31, 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA.”  The Security Council repeated its demand in a December 2006 resolution, a March 2007 resolution, a March 2008 resolution, a September 2008 resolution, and a June 2010 resolution.
  • “Zero enrichment” should require Iran to verifiably and irreversibly shut down key facilities, including (but not limited to):  Fordow, a uranium enrichment plant secretly built inside a mountain near the city of Qom; Natanz, a site with two major uranium enrichment plants; and Esfahan, a site with a facility to convert yellowcake into uranium oxide and uranium hexafluoride for further enrichment.  “Zero enrichment” should also require Iran to verifiably ship out all high enriched uranium and low enriched uranium, as well as all uranium hexafluoride and uranium tetrafluoride, and to verifiably ship out or destroy all uranium enrichment centrifuges.

(2)  Any Iranian nuclear deal should require “zero reprocessing” to close off Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb using plutonium that could be separated from a reactor’s spent nuclear fuel. 

  • The international community’s demand that Iran verifiably stop activities related to reprocessing is also more than a decade old.  On September 12, 2003, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution urging Iran to suspend “any reprocessing activities.”  On July 31, 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA.”  The Security Council repeated its demand in a December 2006 resolution, a March 2007 resolution, a March 2008 resolution, a September 2008 resolution, and a June 2010 resolution.
  • “Zero reprocessing” should require Iran to verifiably and irreversibly shut down key facilities, including (but not limited to):  Arak, a heavy water reactor that can generate spent nuclear fuel containing plutonium that is very well suited for use in a nuclear weapon; and Bushehr, a light water reactor that can be operated to irradiate nuclear fuel for shorter periods than normal, thus generating spent nuclear fuel containing plutonium that is more easily used in a nuclear weapon.  A nuclear deal with Iran should allow Iran to operate the light water reactor at Bushehr if—and only if—Iran permits the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct 24/7 human inspections, install near-real-time monitoring systems, and install wide-area surveillance at that reactor.

(3) Any Iranian nuclear deal should require Iran to fully comply with its international obligations through “complete and total transparency”—that is, by allowing nuclear inspection activities far beyond those required by its NPT-required IAEA safeguards agreement.  The goal would be to ensure that the United States and the international community have both a correct and complete picture of Iran’s nuclear activities—especially those with weapons potential.

  • “Complete and total transparency” should require, as a first step, Iran to ratify and fully implement the IAEA’s so-called “Additional Protocol” agreement.  The Additional Protocol builds upon the standard IAEA nuclear safeguards agreement required by the NPT Treaty, providing international inspectors with legal authorities that empower them to get a more correct and complete picture of Iran’s nuclear program.  As Iran implements the Additional Protocol, it should be required to submit a complete set of documents on all of its activities, sites, and locations related to research, production or use of enrichment and reprocessing.  The IAEA’s Board of Governors first urged Iran to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol in September 2003.  The U.N. Security Council reiterated calls for Iran to ratify the Additional Protocol in December 2006.  
  • “Complete and total transparency” should also require Iran to unconditionally permit extraordinary or special IAEA inspections measures.  Measures should include extensive near-real-time monitoring, wide-area surveillance, and zero-notice inspections at any remaining or suspected nuclear-related facilities.
  • “Complete and total transparency” should require Iran to fully disclose its past work relevant to nuclear weaponization.  Disclosures should include complete history and details on Parchin, a military complex near Tehran where Iran conducted experiments related to nuclear weapons development, and Iran’s work on initiators, hemispheric implosion, and other non-nuclear components for nuclear explosive device.

Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran is a Means, Not an End

The question of what standards any Iranian nuclear deal should meet in order to be effective and durable is an important and timely one, especially given how President Obama—who on many occasions has laid down a red line on Iran getting nuclear weapons—recently responded to the violation of his red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  After publicly threatening to use military force when dictator Bashar al-Assad repeatedly used chemical weapons in Syria, Obama eventually backed off.  Instead, he ended up embracing a controversial U.S.-Russian deal aiming to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons by mid-2014—a “chemical deal” that even Secretary of State John Kerry concedes will be challenging to implement, verify, and enforce.

Given what’s at stake in the debate over a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States and allied nations should learn the right lessons from Obama’s chemical deal with Assad.  One key lesson is the need to set the bar high—not low—for any potential Iranian nuclear deal.  If the United States and Iran resume nuclear negotiations, Iranian diplomats will surely try to lower the standards for any deal.  U.S. and Western diplomats should not aid and abet their Iranian counterparts.  The more an Iranian nuclear deal fails to meet high standards for effectiveness and durability, the greater the risk that Iran could circumvent the agreement and covertly, if not overtly, build a nuclear weapon—just as North Korea did under the Agreed Framework nuclear deal in the 1990s and 2000s.

Efforts to get a nuclear deal with Iran should not be a race to get to “yes,” but to meet or exceed high standards, lest the deal risk doing far more harm than good.  Because the goal of the United States is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, it is therefore critical that U.S. policymakers and lawmakers view nuclear diplomacy with Iran as one of several means to an end—and not as an end in itself.

Robert Zarate is Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), a non-partisan and not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization that educates and engages U.S. decisionmakers, the media, and the wider public on the critical importance of U.S. global leadership in diplomatic, economic, and security affairs.

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