Iran nuclear negotiations almost in the bag

By Jonathan Power

It was the Americans, back in the time of the deposed Shah, who encouraged Iran to develop a nuclear bomb-making capacity. Now it is the Americans, along with the Europeans, who are desperately trying to undo their folly.

They are nearer the goal than they think- or, rather, let on. Perhaps they are playing their cards too close to their chest? Is this what is necessary for the Administration to position itself to assuage Congressional opinion?

As long as both Iran and the US make sure, as the saying goes, they don’t “miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” they should get home and dry well before the end of the six months allowed to complete final negotiations.

A word on the Iranian side: The Supreme Leader, Ayotallah Ali Khameini, who is ultimately the deciding figure, has long ago made his position clear. He has said on more than one occasion, indeed has issued a fatwa to this effect, that to possess nuclear weapons goes against God. Iran is a highly religious nation and these words of his cannot be taken lightly. He cannot put them on one side, even if the Americans prove difficult. Moreover, we have the statements of US intelligence of 2007 and repeated twice since that Iran has abandoned its nuclear weapons program.

If all this be true why don’t the delegates go home and put their feet up? Because on one side the Iranians have their pride, not only politically but in the way, despite all the sanctions, they have been able to get so far in developing nuclear technology. Moreover, they want to secure the right to enrich uranium to be used to fuel their power stations which at one time the US wanted to deny them. To the outside world this doesn’t seem to make much sense in a country swimming with oil. But to those Iranians who take the long view on energy supplies it is best to have alternative – it is also investing in solar and wind power. And then there are probably some people in the Iranian nuclear establishment who do want Iran to be, as Pakistan was for a long time, “only a screwdriver away” from having a serviceable bomb. They have to be satisfied too or they could be, with their friends in the military, a source of opposition to the government.

The Americans and, to a lesser extent the Europeans, have doubting constituents to pacify. Having made such a fuss in the days of President George W. Bush, when Iran was seen as part of “the axis of evil”, public opinion is suspicious of Iran’s motives and purposes. Iran’s counter-rhetoric over the years has not been helpful. Now the US has to prove beyond all doubt to the voters that there is no bomb-making activity at all.

On November 24th last year the participants in the Geneva negotiations announced a 6-month deal to be followed by a more comprehensive, permanent, agreement 6 months later. The US and EU terms are clear. To prevent Iran from using the negotiations to buy time whilst it gets on with its nuclear development, Tehran has agreed to halt production of uranium enriched to 20%. (It would have to be enriched to over 90% to make a bomb.) Tehran would have to keep its capacity for enrichment stable by stopping the operation or the installation of additional advanced centrifuges. It has also agreed to halt progress on the reactor under construction at Arak that is designed to produce plutonium, also a weapons fuel.

These are the essential elements in any deal. In fact the actual agreement of November goes far beyond this. It came as a surprise to many nuclear specialists that Iran agreed it would eliminate its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium (either by diluting it or converting it into an oxide form that is not adaptable to further enrichment).

Added to this, the agreement requires daily access for the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the UN’s nuclear watchdog) and the permanent use of cameras to monitor all activity. Surveillance will be more extensive than anything conceived before. It will monitor uranium mines, mills, centrifuge production and assembly facilities.

One should now turn to the Fact Sheet issued by the White House press office on November 23rd. It is a 5 page single-spaced summary of what was agreed. Nearly two pages are taken up with what Iran has agreed to. It is an impressive list that the press has largely ignored.

Reading this it is difficult to see what else the Iranians can be asked to do to complete a final agreement. The hard work has in fact been done. As long as the Iranians do nothing to upset what they have agreed to in the interim agreement, signing a comprehensive agreement in 6 months’ time should not prove difficult.

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