It’s not easy reading the tea leaves in Tehran, especially when it comes to Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. But over the past few weeks, Iran has sent out a steady stream of signals that it’s willing to talk, and they’ve put some fairly specific proposals on the table.
It’s possible to argue about every one of them, and as always dealing with Iran’s belligerency and fractured internal politics makes it daunting to even the most optimistic among the diplomacy-minded. Still, something important seems to be happening. And, so far at least, the United States hasn’t responded at all to Iran’s overtures, except with bombastic rhetoric of its own.
In early September, Vice President Fereydoun Abbasi of Iran declared that Iran would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ‘full supervision’ of Iran’s nuclear programme if sanctions imposed by the United Nations and world powers were lifted. ‘We proposed that the agency keep Iran’s nuclear programme and activities under full supervision for five years provided that sanctions against Iran are lifted,’ he said. Around the same time, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, was reported by the Associated Press to have written a letter to the six world powers involved in talks with Iran that offered to resume talks on the nuclear issue without preconditions, saying that Iran is ‘ready to cooperate in…non-proliferation and peaceful nuclear cooperation.’
Soon afterward, Iran reconfirmed its support for a Russian-sponsored effort to get the talks back on track. Since last spring, Russia has been seeking to restart talks in what Moscow calls a step-by-step process, in which each side would engage in confidence-building measures, including the lifting of some sanctions by the United Nations. In mid-September, in response to the Russian plan, Jalili declared, ‘Our Russian friends’ suggestion could be a basis for starting talks for regional and international cooperation especially in the field of peaceful nuclear activities.’ Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that if Iran were to freeze the production of centrifuges, Russia would refrain from supporting any new sanctions.
And finally, in a series of interviews with US newspapers, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was willing to suspend the production of uranium enriched to 20 percent if the United States would agree to sell Iran nuclear fuel rods used to produce medical isotopes at the aging Tehran Research Reaction (TRR). ‘If you give us uranium grade 20 percent now, we will stop production,’ he said.
Some of these measures, of course, aren’t big sacrifices for Iran. At present, although Iran possesses 70 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent – and another 4,500 kilograms enriched to 3.5 percent, the standard level for fuel-grade product – it probably doesn’t yet have the ability to turn that uranium into fuel rods for the TRR. In addition, because of international sanctions and other technological problems, Iran is facing growing difficulties in producing smoothly functioning, new centrifuges, and it may lack some of the critical materials to do so.
In addition, in regard to Iran’s offer to allow the IAEA to engage in ‘full supervision’ of its programme, Iranian officials didn’t make clear what exactly they meant. Does it mean that the IAEA can engage in unrestricted inspections of all Iranian sites, at any time? Does it mean that UN inspectors could interview Iranian nuclear scientists? Does it mean that Iran would fully implement so-called ‘additional protocols’ that are part of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty that Iran has signed?