World powers expect Iran to be ready for progress at next nuclear talks

World powers say that Iran has signaled it is ready to 'engage seriously' on a proposal to limit its nuclear development at P5+1 talks that begin tomorrow in Kazakhstan. 

Office of the Supreme Leader/AP
In this photo released by official website of the Iranian supreme leader's office on March 21, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to a crowd in northeastern Iran on the first day of the new Persian calendar year.

Iran nuclear talks resume tomorrow in Kazakhstan, with six world powers expecting Iran to “engage seriously” over a February proposal to curb its nuclear work, according to a senior US official. 

“There has been a very positive line out of Tehran on the talks so far,” said the US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We hope that that positive talk will now be matched with some concrete responses and actions on the Iranian side.” 

"The onus is really on Iran to respond to the proposal and tell us where they stand," the American official said. 

The two-day talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty will build on a proposal put down by six world powers in late February, also in Almaty. The proposal calls on Iran to strictly limit its most sensitive nuclear work – uranium enrichment to 20 percent, which is technically not too far from bomb-grade – in exchange for partial relief from crippling sanctions.  

Iran’s chief negotiator hailed that proposal as a potential “turning point” because it requires both sides to take steps. But after 13.5 hours of subsequent technical talks in Istanbul on March 18, an Iranian source said the offer had “no balance” because Iran, from its perspective, was required to give up more than it got in return.

The US official said the six nations of the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) negotiating with Iran “are in complete agreement that this is a balanced and fair and proportionate step-by-step proposal that asks appropriate things of Iran and offers a proportionate response.” 

About Iran’s reaction, the US official said: “I’m not entirely surprised that Iran’s first response would be to say we want more for doing less.” If Iran “does not take concrete steps to address the concerns of the international community,” the US official added, then sanctions “pressure only will increase.”

Nuts and bolts

The P5+1 proposal describes the “voluntary measures” to be taken by both sides in a six-month timeframe “with renewal by mutual consent,” according to a version of the proposal seen by The Christian Science Monitor.

Although this version could not be independently verified – these talks are not public – its details closely match broader descriptions from anonymous American, European, and Iranian sources in recent weeks.  

The current proposal calls on Iran to suspend all enrichment above the 5 percent needed to fuel power reactors; to convert its existing 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel for a research reactor, and export or dilute the rest; and to put its deeply buried Fordow enrichment facility in a “reduced readiness status without dismantlement.”

The proposal lists a number of specific technical steps to be taken at Fordow, including piping and cable disconnections, vacuum adjustments, and removal of “feed and withdrawal systems” that have until now enabled Iran’s centrifuges there to spin uranium to 20 percent purity.

Iran would also have to accept “enhanced” monitoring of its nuclear facilities, including cameras at Fordow to provide “continuous surveillance with live stream transmission” to the Vienna headquarters of inspectors of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In exchange, and “after IAEA confirmation that Iran has implemented all these measures,” the US and European Union would suspend sanctions on gold and precious metals, and the export of petrochemicals. 

The P5+1 would also offer civilian nuclear cooperation, including providing fuel for an aging research reactor in Tehran – which requires 20 percent enriched uranium for fuel – as well as IAEA technical help with acquiring a modern research reactor, safety assistance, and supplying of isotopes for nuclear medicine.

The US would further “license safety-related inspection and repair in Iran for Iranian commercial aircraft” bought years ago from American plane-makers. 

P5+1 diplomats have said this “confidence building measure” is a first step, and this version of the proposal states that “additional significant steps” taken by Iran will yield “corresponding steps” from the P5+1. “In return for further significant action” from Iran, it states, the US and EU would be “prepared to take comparable action, including proportionate relief of oil sanctions.”

Backed into a corner?

Even as talks have resumed – the Almaty I session in February broke an eight-month diplomatic dry spell – all sides have continued rhetoric that grates against the other.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for example, has several times in recent weeks listed past grievances against the US, and accused Washington of wanting these talks in order to show Iran’s “weakness.” He has ruled out direct US-Iran talks for now

Likewise, the US and Israel continue to state that “all options are on the table” – meaning military ones as well – in their bid to discourage any Iranian rush for a nuclear weapon. Iran publicly rejects nuclear weapons, but has yet to resolve questions with the IAEA about possible past weapons-related work.

A nuclear deal is possible and its contours well known, says Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who was a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team a decade ago and is now at Princeton. “But America should try to [help save] the face of the Iranians, rather than push them into a corner," he adds.

Both sides should define their most important needs and what they can expect at the end of the diplomatic process, says Mousavian. He suggests a two-for-two formula, in which the P5+1 would present two lists: one with every single transparency measure they want Iran to take and a second detailing every measure and guarantee required for Iran to limit enrichment to 5 percent and prevent a “break out” to a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s two lists would focus on its two priorities: Recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium, and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions that have choked its economy. Mutual agreement on such lists, says Mousavian, “will help both of you know the end state.”

Ready for progress

Some of those conclusions are echoed by the “Iran Task Force” of the Washington-based Atlantic Council, which reports today, after a two-year examination of Iran issues, that the US “should prepare a roadmap, to be used in negotiations, for gradually removing sanctions as concrete agreements are reached. Iran needs to see off-ramps and an endgame.” 

The Atlantic Council report says a US military option is a “last resort,” but that the Obama administration “must ensure that this threat remains credible, as it may ultimately be the only course that deters Iran from deciding to build nuclear weapons.”

The report also prominently calls for “new measures to augment people-to-people ties, support Iran’s democratic evolution, and facilitate trade in food, medicine, and medical supplies” as a “potent goodwill gesture.” 

Those recommendations are among the “most important,” says Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who drafted the report.

“The US-Iran dispute has been going on for decades and is not about to end anytime soon. But someday, the US and Iran will have diplomatic relations again and we need to prepare the ground for that now,” says Ms. Slavin. 

A first step may be what happens at Almaty II, though diplomats don’t yet know what to expect from Iran, says the senior US official.

“The only thing we’ve heard is … from the public rhetoric, which has been repeated in private conversations people have had with the Iranians – those who do have communications with them – and that is that they’re going to come in a positive frame of mind ready to continue to make progress,” says the US official. “But whether that is going to be meaningful, we have no idea.”

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