The current round of talks between Iran and the major world powers, represented by the so-called P5+1, resumes January 24 in Istanbul following an initial two-day session held last month in Geneva. And, while it’s exceedingly unlikely that the talks will achieve a breakthrough, for the first time in quite a while there’s actually some reason for optimism.
First of all, the scuttlebutt in Washington is that the Obama administration is now prepared to put a much-improved offer on the table. According to several sources in think tanks, on Capitol Hill and among Iran experts, the United States will offer to allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, on its own soil and with its existing array of centrifuges. That offer, however, will be contingent on Iran exporting the bulk of its enriched uranium for processing outside the country, most likely in Russia, where part of it will be transformed into fuel rods for use in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which is used for medical purposes, and part of it will be reprocessed into fuel for the Russian-built nuclear plant at Bushehr, which recently started up. That latter use could be crucial, since it allows Iran to claim that it’s refining and enriching fuel for civilian use in a power plant, not for military purposes.
In exchange, Iran would be required to accept stringent new oversight by the international community, through the International Atomic Energy Agency. In addition, it wouldn’t be allowed to expand either the number or the capacity of its existing centrifuges. In any case, according to Iran watchers, the sanctions regime has already severely undercut Iran’s ability to manufacture and operate additional centrifuges. And Iran’s nuclear programme has also been undermined by what appears to be a devastating covert operations effort—led, it’s hard not to presume, by the United States and Israel—that has included the Stuxnet computer virus, a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers and a campaign of sabotage aimed at equipment and technology used in Iran’s nuclear industry.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Were a deal struck roughly along these lines, it would achieve the much-desired win-win outcome for both sides. The United States could claim that it has achieved its primary goal of tougher inspections and verification measures aimed at ensuring that Iran doesn’t opt for a military nuclear programme, while creating an ongoing conveyor belt that would take Iran’s low-enriched uranium outside the country, where it could be transformed into civilian-use fuel rods. Iran, on the other hand, could claim that it has stood firm, winning the world’s recognition of its right to a uranium enrichment programme on its own soil, under Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty terms. Once in place, the deal would allow Iran to insist that economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council be lifted.