A new round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, namely the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, is upon us. Based on the failures of previous talks, the upcoming discussions scheduled for April 14 have had an air of pessimism hanging over them.
But not all hope is lost.
A recent proposal by the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), as well as a leaked report about U.S and European demands for the upcoming talks, suggest some common ground may be emerging between the two sides.
The report, leaked to The New York Times, find the U.S and European position in the upcoming talks is centered around demands that Iran ceases uranium enrichment of 20 percent at the Fordo nuclear site near the city of Qom. This is in addition to a demand that Iran transfers its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
Meanwhile, according to a proposal by Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, who is the current head of the AEOI, Iran “could eventually stop its production of the 20 percent enriched uranium needed for a research reactor, used for medical research and treatments.” Davani then goes on to add: “Iran would continue enriching uranium to lower levels of about 3.5 percent for power generation.”
It’s not clear whether Davani’s view represents that of Ali Khamenei, and it’s certainly the supreme leader who has the final word on nuclear matters. Still, his proposal that Iran could eventually stop production of 20 percent enriched uranium deserves attention.
There are, of course, gaps between the current U.S and European position on the one side, and Davani’s proposal on the other. For example, Davani’s proposal doesn’t include the transfer of existing stock of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium. However, despite the differences, the proposals on each side show two important areas of common interest.
One is the U.S and European proposal that shows there’s tacit agreement to Iran enriching at lower levels on its own soil. This is a departure from previous Israeli demands, as well as those under the administration of George W. Bush, that enrichment in Iran must stop altogether. This overture also happens to chime with Davani’s proposal that Iran continues with lower level enrichment on its soil.
The other area of common ground is the idea of ceasing enrichment at Fordo. The difference between the two sides is a matter of timing – the U.S and European position calls for immediate cessation, while Davani’s proposal calls for “eventual” cessation.
In terms of areas of concern on both side, the Iranians during previous deals have expressed concern that if they transfer all their enriched uranium abroad in large batches, they will be left with no leverage if the West doesn’t comply with its own commitments. At the same time, the Iranian government is most probably extremely concerned about the current unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU against its central bank. This is in addition to sanctions imposed by the international SWIFT clearing system against transactions with Iran’s other banks.
Meanwhile the P5+1 is for its part concerned about continued enrichment of 20 percent at Iran’s nuclear site in Fordo, as well as Iran’s existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
So, how to move forward? A quid pro quo proposal divided into two stages: interim and permanent.
The goal of the interim part of this plan is to alleviate immediate concerns in the West about Iran’s current stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which would be useful for Khamenei’s regime should he decide to go the bomb route. The interim stage could also be used to alleviate Iran’s concerns about current unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU. It would work sequentially, as follows:
The initial stage:
1) Iran immediately ceases enrichment at 20 percent at Fordo, but continues to enrich uranium at 3.5 percent. Tacit western recognition of the continuation of enrichment on Iranian soil, albeit at a lower level, would be an achievement for the Iranian side that could provide Khamenei with a face saving option, and could help him justify the cessation of enrichment at higher levels. In return, the West ceases to impose further unilateral sanctions against Iran.
2) The West provides Iran with the medical isotopes that Iran has stated it wants to develop from the nuclear fuel made from the 20 percent enriched uranium produced at Fordo. In return, Iran agrees to place all its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium under the strictest IAEA supervision inside Iranian territory. This includes snap inspections as well as cameras with direct, real time feeds into IAEA headquarters in Vienna.
3) Iran then starts to transfer its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in four or five batches to another country for conversion to fuel. This would be based on a clear timetable. With each batch delivered, elements of the current unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU against Iran are lifted. When the last batch of 20 percent enriched uranium leaves Iran, the remaining elements of the current unilateral sanctions against Iran would be lifted.
Although this quid pro quo proposal offers an interim solution, if the plan succeeds it could lead to a major boost in confidence between the two sides. Both sides could then move to the next stage for resolving outstanding issues.
The final stage:
1) The Iranian government would then move to dismantle the site in Fordo. In return, the P5+1 would agree to provide Iran with the nuclear fuel it needs on a continuous basis. Both the Iranian and P5+1 moves would be supervised by the IAEA. The IAEA must ensure that Iran gets the nuclear fuel it requires on time and in the right quantities.
2) Iran would then answer remaining IAEA questions. For each “major” question answered, elements of existing U.N. sanctions would be lifted (as per the Russian step-by-step proposal). Once all questions are answered, and the Iranian nuclear program receives a clean bill of health from the IAEA, the final U.N. sanctions against Iran would be removed.
3) The United Nations and the P5+1 move from tacit recognition to official recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium at 3.5 percent. The P5+1 and the United Nations would support IAEA programs to provide Iran with assistance for its nuclear program. Iran would then agree to additional protocol IAEA inspections for its existing sites.
Despite previous failures, the upcoming talks between Iran and the P5+1 could still be turned into a success, depending on how far both sides are ready to compromise.
It’s often said that pessimists are simply optimists with experience. But to give the next round of talks a fair chance, both sides may need to work harder to put some of their previous bad experiences behind them.