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?
Presumably, finding answers to those questions, and exploring whether Iran is ready to sit down and talk concretely about a solution to the nuclear standoff, is the point of negotiations. But the Obama administration hasn’t responded positively to Iran’s overtures, dismissing them as rhetorical flourishes and part of a ‘charm offensive’ by Iran at the start of the UN General Assembly session. Indeed, at a recent IAEA session, US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, accusing Iran of ‘provocative behaviour,’ unleashed a stream of vitriolic rhetoric of his own in regard to Iran’s programme. ‘Iran,’ he said, ‘has continued to engage in a long-standing pattern of denial, deceit and evasion, in violation of its non-proliferation obligations.’
Iran, of course, has worries of its own about provocative behaviour. In recent years, several of its top nuclear scientists have been assassinated or wounded in terrorist attacks inside Iran, actions that bear the trademarks of Western or Israeli intelligence services. On top of that, a virulent computer worm, Stuxnet – reportedly a US-Israeli joint effort – crippled some of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Just last week, it was widely reported that the United States had agreed to provide Israel with extremely powerful bunker-buster bombs that, presumably, could be used against Iran’s fortified nuclear research installations. And, echoing US officials, including Obama, that military action is an option in response to Iran’s programme, President Sarkozy of France warned ominously that Iran’s ‘military, nuclear and ballistic ambitions constitute a growing threat that may lead to a preventive attack against Iranian sites.’
Iran, which hasn’t fully explained its nuclear programme, may or may not be serious about talks. It’s possible, analysts in Washington say, that Iran is either seeking to acquire a military nuclear capability as soon as it can, or to get as close as possible – the proverbial one-turn-of-the-screwdriver away – from such a capability, and that all of its rhetoric about negotiations is merely a stalling tactic. But even the best informed analysts say that it’s impossible to read Iran’s intent, and there are huge questions about how fast Iran is proceeding toward a military nuclear capacity, if that’s what it wants. Still, to find out, it’s better to talk than not to talk, and so far the Obama administration hasn’t pushed very hard to break the diplomatic stalemate.
There’s time, of course. Although in the broadest sense Iran has enough enriched uranium for a bomb or two, not an ounce of that uranium is enriched to the level needed for a weapon – and if it did so, it would either happen in full view of the IAEA inspectors who closely monitor Iran’s programme, or Iran would have to expel the IAEA and quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty. On top of that, no one can say with certainty that Iran has the know-how to turn even highly enriched uranium (more than 90 percent grade) into a bomb. Nor does it appear that Iran has the ability either to produce a missile or other delivery device for such a weapon, or the ability to squeeze what would likely be a bulky weapon into a warhead. And, of course, there’s no reason to believe that Iran’s calculating leaders are suicidal, in that using such a weapon would likely provoke a catastrophic response from Israel – which is said to own more than 200 bombs – or from the United States.
But even if there’s time, the clock is ticking. Whether a nuclear-capable Iran is two years away, as some analysts estimate might be possible, or five years away, there’s no reason why talks shouldn’t be restarted immediately. For Obama, seeking re-election in 2012 against a Republican candidate who’s likely to make an issue of any US concessions to Iran, there might be a political price to pay. But next year’s vote in the United States will revolve almost entirely around the economic downtown, unemployment, and the government’s debt and deficit, meaning that Obama will actually have a relatively free hand when it comes to foreign policy. Let’s hope he takes advantage of it.