Iran’s trumpeting of what it says are major advances in its uranium-enrichment activities overshadowed another announcement Tehran made Wednesday – that it has formally accepted an invitation from international powers to return to talks on its nuclear program.
But the two are closely related, nuclear experts say, because they reveal how Iran is trying to build up its image as progressing toward nuclear mastery even as it accepts a return to negotiations.
“With these kinds of announcements, the Iranians are making their best attempt to increase their negotiating leverage and enter these talks from a position of strength,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “This is designed for an international audience, but it’s also for domestic consumption.”
Iran announced Wednesday that its chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, has formally accepted an invitation sent to Iran in October by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, to talks with the so-called P5+1 group of countries – the Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany.
It was not immediately clear under what conditions Iran had accepted returning to talks. European officials had said that Iran, at a minimum, would be required to suspend enriching uranium to 20 percent purity and to accept international inspectors to verify that suspension.
The EU’s Lady Ashton is scheduled to meet in Washington Friday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss the Iran developments, among other issues.
In another move aimed at Europe, and which also sought to portray Iran as a hard bargainer before any impending talks, Tehran suggested to six European countries still importing Iranian oil – France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, and Portugal – that it might start cutting back on oil shipments. Just last month the EU approved an embargo on Iranian oil imports, to take effect in July after current contracts expire.
One Iranian press service initially announced that shipments to the six countries had been stopped. The report sent the price of oil to a six-month high of $119 a barrel.
In Iran, announcement of Mr. Jalili’s letter of acceptance was buried under Iran’s chest-thumping over several advances in the country’s uranium enrichment capabilities.
Official reports claimed that the country’s first domestically produced fuel rods were installed at an aging, American-made research reactor north of Tehran. The reactor, used to create medical isotopes, requires 20 percent enriched uranium fuel, which is also required for producing the highly enriched uranium – 90 percent purity – needed for a uranium-fueled nuclear weapon.
Iran also claimed to have installed the first of a new generation of faster and more efficient “P-2” centrifuges – the machines that spin uranium to achieve higher purity – at its major nuclear facility at Natanz.
Separate Iranian reports also publicized an official announcement that a new underground nuclear facility at Fardo near the city of Qom is now fully operational.
The announcements demonstrate that Iran “continues to make slow but steady progress on its uranium enrichment capabilities,” says the Arms Control Association’s Mr. Kimball, even though the steps announced do not suggest Iran has attained anything near the “nuclear self-sufficiency” it is claiming, he adds.
“They are still not in a position to fully fuel the Tehran research reactor,” he says. “The P-2 centrifuges are still not fully installed.”
Still, he calls it “a matter of some urgency” to restart negotiations and reach a deal before Iran crosses those thresholds.
But others worry that Iran, while seeking to increase its negotiating leverage, is also signaling that it has no intention of giving up the progress it has already made.
The announced advances are “a diplomatic talking point for the Iranians,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. But he adds that “they are also making it very, very clear that they are not going to back down on making fuel and on getting to the edge of weapons.”
Accepting that Iran simply stop enriching uranium to 20 percent in exchange for returning to negotiations should not be good enough for the Western powers, Mr. Sokolski says, because any level of enrichment makes verification of exactly what is occurring very difficult.
“Once countries get into making nuclear fuel, you’re allowing them to keep on trying to do more, and keeping an eye on what they are doing depends on trust,” he says. “I think they [the P5+1] have to say to the Iranians, ‘Stop making fuel – full stop.’ ”
Kimball, on the other hand, says the international community should use the opportunity that appears to be opening to “test” Iran’s earlier offer to suspend its 20 percent uranium enrichment. If international inspectors are allowed in to verify that suspension, then the way could open to the kind of fuel-swap deal Iran was on the verge of accepting in 2009, he says.
Under such a deal, Iran would receive from an outside source the fuel it needs for its research reactor, in exchange for sending out of the country enough of its stockpiled enriched uranium to ensure world powers it is not amassing the fuel for developing a nuclear weapon.
The progress Iran has made in nuclear fuel production since 2009 would seem to make such a deal more difficult, but some experts believe that the difficult economic straits Iran is navigating as a result of toughened international sanctions are also putting it in a mood to negotiate.
Dennis Ross, who until recently was Secretary Clinton’s special adviser on Iran and the Middle East, told a Washington audience this week that the latest sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil exports, as well as Europe’s embargo on Iranian oil imports, are having an impact in Iran and putting the Iranian regime in a mood to return to the negotiating table.
Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he now works, Mr. Ross also said it is his understanding that Israel – which has long called for “crippling” sanctions to compel Iran to change its nuclear course – is willing to give the sanctions now in place a chance to achieve their goal before taking any decision to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.