Details are emerging about the content of Iran's nuclear talks with world powers, days after a 15-hour marathon meeting of technical experts in Istanbul, which show the two sides poles apart but engaged on substantive issues.
Iran's priorities are now clear: The removal of all sanctions, and explicit guarantees of its "nuclear rights" to enrich uranium, according to the original slides of an Iranian PowerPoint presentation made during the latest top-level political talks in Moscow in June, acquired by the Monitor.
Also becoming clearer: Iran is willing to negotiate over its most sensitive nuclear work – enrichment to 20 percent level – but rejects many other demands of the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany).
The Iran mission to the United Nations shared a text version of the same information – without clearly identifying it as the precise presentation made in Moscow – with Iran specialists Tuesday. Added to it was Iran's detailed response to the P5+1 package, which was first laid down during a previous rancorous round of talks in Baghdad in May. That Iranian document was first published by Al-Monitor website on Wednesday.
The P5+1 wants to permanently curb Iran's advanced nuclear program, to ensure the Islamic Republic can never build a nuclear weapon. Iran says its work is limited to peaceful uses only, and argues that as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and under constant UN inspection, it has been singled out for political reasons.
The Istanbul round last Tuesday was low-level and technical in nature. The talks focused only on two points. The first was halting Iran's 20-percent enrichment – a level technically close to weapon's grade of 90 percent – and shipping its 20-percent stockpile out of the country. Iranian officials have indicated publicly for months they may willing to do a deal on 20 percent, though Iranian lawmakers this week voiced reasons to raise that level further for non-weapon purposes.
The importance of progress was underscored by mutual saber-rattling this week: Iran conducted three days of missile-test war games, while the US highlighted its own military buildup off Iran's shores in the Persian Gulf.
Ending 20-percent enrichment
The second point discussed in Istanbul was the P5+1 demand that Iran close down its enrichment facility at Fordow, which is deeply buried underground, difficult to attack, and home to Iran's 20 percent enrichment.
"My first impression is that there is room to be optimistic, as long as both sides need to calm the situation, because it is getting out of control," says an Iranian official familiar with the talks, who asked not to be further identified.
At the negotiating table, Iran "clearly for the first time" offered to exchange 20-percent enrichment for lifting of sanctions, says the Iranian official. That indirectly echoes Iran's PowerPoint proposal, which states that Iran "will cooperate with the 5+1 to provide enriched [20 percent] fuel," and expects the P5+1 will in return "terminate the sanctions and will remove Iran's nuclear file from the [UN Security Council] agenda."
"We said the issue of 20-percent could be a matter of discussion, when the [final] result was known, if they said what they are going to give us in return – a full lifting of sanctions," says the Iranian official. "We said all of them, though it could be done part by part."
On the other side, the P5+1 say they need to see Iran take confidence-building measures first, before real bargaining can begin.
"So far, we have not seen a willingness by the Iranians to do anything else than talk, write letters, and gesture," says a Western diplomat close to the talks. "There is a real sense among the P5+1 that we're going to have to see some action ... from the Iranians."
"It's not that we are inflexible, but there is a sense that before we get into the flexibility, they have to do more than just talk," says the Western diplomat.
The sanctions have damaged Iran's economy and have tightened in recent days, with a European Union oil embargo and more US measures coming into effect. Sanctions relief is not among incentives of the P5+1 package, and many of the escalating American measures imposed by Congress require more than Iranian movement on its nuclear case in order to be lifted.
On the last page of the Iranian response document is a cryptic line in quotations marks, apparently referring to the P5+1 package, which reads with ellipses: "The United States is prepared to ... adjust its sanctions policy...."
Of the four main objectives listed at the top of Iran's PowerPoint proposal, the first is to "normalize Iran's nuclear file" at the UN and with its nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "by termination of the UNSC, unilateral, and multilateral sanctions against Iran."
"We said we need a quick response.... We warned them that tomorrow it may not be the case that 20 percent [enrichment] is still the issue," says the Iranian official, noting some calls in Tehran to raise the level of enrichment – an unlikely and provocative step.
"We said closing Fordow is completely out of the question, and provided the explanation that it is not a military base and is under safeguard by the IAEA," he says. "So there is no need to close it, it is not a matter of concern."
That point is made in Iran's official presentations. Stating that there is "no limitation" to IAEA access at Fordow, the documents add that "sustained threats" against Iran's nuclear program and the assassination of a number of its scientists make protection of sensitive facilities "necessary."
"Facing constant threats, we need a backup facility to safeguard our enrichment activities," Iran's document states. Iran further suggested that it has plans for "at least four other research reactors," and therefore needed a steady supply of 20 percent enriched uranium to make fuel for them.
Iran further stated that there was no reason to ship its current stockpile out of the country, because it was already under IAEA "supervision" and "seal" inside Iran – and would be so anywhere else.
Underpinning the Iranian position, according to the PowerPoint presentation and document – a third, shorter PowerPoint about the legal implications of the fatwa by Iran's top religious authority rejecting nuclear weapons has not yet been made public – is that both sides move forward "step by step" in a reciprocal, simultaneous and balanced way.
The documents also say Iran is committed to both rights and obligations under the NPT, which include removing doubt about longstanding accusations of past weapons-related work, and accepting more intrusive inspections. While dismissing those charges as "baseless accusations and ambiguities," the PowerPoint says Iran will "transparently cooperate" with the IAEA to clear up "possible military dimensions."
Under the title: "A framework for comprehensive and targeted dialogue for long term cooperation among 7 countries," Iran calls for top negotiators – Saeed Jalili for Iran and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton for the P5+1 – to meet every three months.
Barely mentioned is that the P5+1 also requires Iran to suspend all enrichment – including the bulk of its work, at 3.5 percent purity for nuclear fuel – in keeping with UN Security Council and IAEA resolutions. Iran has always rejected such a move.
Critical for "guaranteeing the success" of the talks, reads one Iranian PowerPoint slide, is that both sides "clearly set the ultimate outcome of the talks" up front – meaning, in Iran's view, that the P5+1 agree to lift all sanctions by the end of the process, and "normalize" Iran's nuclear efforts.
But many of Iran's official positions are unacceptable to the P5+1, just as many P5+1 proposals are unacceptable to Iran. Any common ground will be chewed over at the next meeting, between deputies of the top negotiators, on a date not yet specified.
"We've come up with a pretty good package with which, if they take it at face value, we could be trundling down a productive path for both of us," says the Western diplomat. "The most important carrot is a process toward rehabilitation, respect, and acknowledgment, of which the immediate steps are meant to get down the track to that wider, comprehensive arrangement."