Iran has reiterated its willingness to engage in talks on its controversial nuclear program, just days after another Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed Iran was producing 20 percent enriched uranium.
Iranian speaker of parliament Ali Larijani, who as the country's former top nuclear negotiator carries significant influence, said on a visit to Turkey yesterday that Tehran was ready for "serious" talks on its nuclear program, the BBC reports. The talks would be hosted by Istanbul and involve the so-called P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany.
“Regarding the 5+1 talks, we have previously expressed Iran’s readiness to hold talks in order to resolve the nuclear issue,” said Mr. Larijani, speaking just a day after scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed in Tehran.
Given rising tensions related to increased international sanctions and the assassination of Mr. Roshan on Wednesday – the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist killed in the last two years, according to the Washington Post – many question whether the talks will move forward. It has been more than a year since Iran last discussed its nuclear goals with the P5+1, in Istanbul in January 2011, and Iran has not officially agreed to resume talks.
At issue is whether Iran is using the existence of a nuclear power program, which it is entitled to have, as a guise for developing nuclear weapons – a charge Tehran has repeatedly denied.
The government insists it is only trying to generate nuclear power and radioactive medical isotopes, Agence France Presse reports, they have increased enrichment levels from 3.5 to 20 percent – still shy of the 90 percent needed for a weapon, but an important step down that road.
If Iran decides to produce weapons-grade uranium from 20 percent enriched uranium, it has already technically undertaken 90 percent of the enrichment effort required. What remains to be done is the feeding of 20 percent uranium through existing additional cascades to achieve weapons-grade enrichment (more than 90 percent uranium). This step is much faster than the earlier ones. Growing the stockpile of 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium, as Iran is now doing, provides the basic material needed to produce four to five nuclear weapons.
Mr. Heinonen says that would take half a year to do with current Iranian technology, however, more advanced resources could cut that time in half. “...[B]uilding an atomic bomb is a complex endeavor that requires precision engineering capabilities that Iran may lack," he adds, "but it does mean that the country would be able to "break out" of its international obligations very quickly should it decide to do so."
However, some believe a more pressing issue is finding consistent communication channels between the US and Iran, before misunderstandings or miscommunications lead to an unintended military conflict. Yesterday, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote:
“Since the embassy takeover that followed the Iranian revolution of 1979, the two nations haven’t had diplomatic recognition. They communicate indirectly, through the Swiss embassy, which is inadequate. So here’s a proposal in this period of deepening crisis: The United States and Iran should explore the possibility of direct contact through the sort of back channel that nations use to communicate urgent messages — namely, their intelligence services. Through this contact, each side could communicate its “red lines” in the crisis — for the United States, the insistence that Iran’s nuclear program remain peaceful; for Iran, presumably, an end to sanctions and a recognition that Iran is a significant regional power.…
"An intelligence channel might address the problem that has frustrated past efforts to engage Iran — which is the lack of an authoritative intermediary. An offer made by one faction in Tehran is disavowed by another. That’s what happened in the fall of 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signaled his willingness to accept a formula for enriching uranium outside the country. But he didn’t have support from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose allies immediately began attacking the deal. It quickly collapsed.”
Yet, despite rising tensions in Iran, some specialists say the current scenario is not necessarily unprecedented. Former US assistant secretary of State James Dobbins now in charge of RAND's International Security and Defense Policy Center and Alireza Nader, a RAND senior policy analyst, argue in a New York Times op-ed:
“Iran is often depicted as an irrational actor, with Ahmadinejad’s seemingly erratic behavior and odious rhetoric serving as justification. Yet the clerical-led regime in Tehran is no less rational and calculating than the former Soviet Union or Communist China, both of which were successfully deterred and contained by the United States.”
A high-level United Nations nuclear delegation is slated to visit Iran later this month in an effort to answer some of the remaining questions about covert nuclear weapons that have heightened international attention on Iran this month, reports AFP. It is unclear, however, whether the envoy will be limited to speaking with Iranian officials, or granted access to inspect sites included in the IAEA's Nov. 8 report.