Nuclear talks: What does Iran have the 'right' to do?

Negotiators open a new round of negotiations on Iran's nuclear program today. On the agenda: defining Iran's 'right' to enrich uranium.

Salvatore Di Nolfi, Keystone/AP
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, right, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, arrive for a photo opportunity prior to the start of three days of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013

At the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the diplo-speak is familiar: talks are “hard,” “gaps remain,” and “decades of mistrust” must be overcome. But diplomats also describe a “positive atmosphere,” and renewed “determination” by Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) to strike a deal after a near miss just two weeks ago.

A full day of talks resumed in earnest today, after kick-off meetings on Wednesday. The last Geneva round ended without a deal, when more demands were made of Iran in the final hours. Now Iran says that if it is to agree to limits on its enrichment capacity and a stop to key nuclear work, it expects more sanctions relief and other incentives in return. 

Finding a new and acceptable balance for both sides – and clarifying the details to make it happen – is what is obsessing negotiators now in the snowy, sleet-swept Swiss city.

On the table is an initial six-month deal that aims to stop Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, while negotiators hammer out a comprehensive final pact that prevents Iran from ever creating a nuclear weapon.

Iran would stop its most sensitive uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, convert its stockpile to fuel use only, halt work on a heavy water reactor at Arak, and agree to robust verification measures in exchange for a modest lifting of sanctions that have crippled its economy.

So what still needs to be done? And is there sufficient trust and flexibility to bridge the many gaps that remain? 

“The main obstacle is the lack of trust because of what happened at the last round,” Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and a senior negotiator, told Iranian media today. He noted “major differences” meant that there was only a “chance” of a deal by Friday. “As long as trust is not restored, we cannot continue constructive negotiations," he said.

Iran insists on its "right" to keep enriching uranium for peaceful purposes a demand that was a sticking point in previous talks over the past two years, when Iran and the P5+1 traveled from Istanbul to Baghdad to Moscow to Almaty, Kazakhstan, in search of a deal.

“The principle of enrichment is not negotiable but we can discuss volumes, levels and locations,” said Mr. Araghchi, noting that this issue was "one of the most difficult, important and sensitive parts" of the talks. His words echoed those of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who said yesterday that Iran would “not retreat one step” from its nuclear rights, and that Iran’s “red lines must be observed” in any deal.

A semantic compromise appeared to come from Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who in recent days said Iran already had the “right” to enrich, so it did not need to be officially recognized by the P5+1.

A senior US official said talks were getting into the “nitty-gritty details,” but cautioned on raising hopes too high. “This is difficult. This is tough. There is a lot at stake for every country in the room.”

Officials in Washington have also hinted in recent days at a compromise on enrichment, such that Iran's rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty might be recognized – but not explicitly its "right" to enrich. Both sides would then interpret that fudge as they desired, leaving Iran with de-facto enrichment on its own soil. 

“Do I believe this issue can be navigated in an agreement? Yes I do. And we will see if that can be done or not,” the US official told journalists in Geneva.

Sanctions trade-off 

Beyond enrichment, negotiators may confront a minefield in finding a mutually acceptable trade-off between what Iran does, and what it gets. 

“The [removal of] oil and banking santions will be part of the negotiations and measures of the other side in the first step,” Araghchi said today, according to a translation by the semi-official Fars News Agency.

The US official had a very different view, confirming that Washington only foresees modest relief on trade in petrochemical and precious metals, and access to some frozen cash reserves abroad, which may add up to as little $5 billion. 

“The sanctions relief that is being contemplated – if we get an agreement – is quite small and does not undermine in any way the core architecture of our oil, banking and financial sanctions, which have to remain in place until we get a comprehensive agreement,” said the senior US official

As for the rest of the crippling sanctions on Iran, these would be "vigorously" enforced during the six-month deal, the official added.

From the US side, this preliminary step will include enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, the heavy water reactor at Arak, as well as the capacity of enrichment, stockpiles of enriched material, verification and monitoring, and “have general parameters for a comprehensive agreement,” adds the official.

Those parameters are almost certain to include, for the US and P5+1, the long-term objective of ensuring that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon, and for Iran, recognition and normalization of its nuclear program under strict monitoring.

“We have made a lot of progress, but some issues really need to be clarified,” said another Western diplomat. “I sensed a real commitment…from both sides. Will it happen? We will see. But as always the devil is in the details.”

Verification of facts on the ground

What kind of details are likely being negotiated now, for the six-month deal? For example, one is likely working out how to turn the stated ambition of diplomats – such as halting Iran’s sensitive 20 percent uranium enrichment – into verifiable facts on the ground.

A sense of what the specialists are grappling with can perhaps be seen in the proposal put forward by the P5+1 to Iran in March 2013, which was leaked to The Christian Science Monitor.

That offer focused on a different issue: making inoperable the centrifuges that enrich uranium at Iran’s deeply buried Fordow facility, which has a capacity for just 3,000 centrifuges. But it dove deeply into technical requirements such changed piping and valve requirements, for example, and "draining UF6 gas from in-process cold traps".

In Geneva, “There are very technical issues at stake; it is important to have a clear understanding on technical elements in order to ensure a robust and viable agreement,” says the Western diplomat. “This needs to be done in a proper way – we will take the time we need.”

And there are domestic politics to consider, if only so that both sides can present a new deal as a "win," if not "win-win."

“If we agree on something, definitely that means there are enough things for us to take back home,” Majid Takht-Ravanchi, a member of Iran’s negotiating team, recently told the Monitor.

“If there is going to be an agreement – and it’s a big ‘if’ – definitely enrichment is something we need to take back,” said Mr. Ravanchi. “We are not very much attached to a specific wording…but what is important is the concept of enrichment [that] has to be somehow reflected in the document.”

On this point – selling a deal to critics at home – the US and Iran are on the same page. Even this initial deal “poses risks for everyone at the table,” says the senior US official. “We all have domestic constituencies. We all have skeptics.”

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