Talks Stall, Congress Stirs
Updated May 20, 2013
May 15 talks with Iran, held in Vienna and Istanbul, ended with a discouraging -- though not surprising -- lack of progress. In Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency met with Iranian representatives in the latest round of discussions aimed at resolving questions over possible military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear efforts. The IAEA is seeking access to Iranian scientists, sites and documents. Following the meeting, IAEA Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts told the press that the two sides "could not finalize the structured approach document that has been under negotiation for a year and a half now." Mr. Nackaerts repeated the IAEA’s commitment to "dialogue," but noted that "we must recognize that our best efforts have not been successful so far."
In Istanbul, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, for their first discussions since a failed April round of P5+1 talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Following the April talks, Ms. Ashton said positions "remain far apart on substance." In Istanbul, she said her meeting with Mr. Jalili was "useful," adding that "we will be in touch shortly."
Mr. Jalili, who has registered to run as a candidate for president in Iran’s June 14 elections, was upbeat in his assessment, as he has been at the close of other recent negotiating sessions. He said the Istanbul talks were "long, useful," and noted that he and Ms. Ashton "had a chance to go into details." Mr. Jalili also has taken his case to social media such as Twitter, where on May 17 he tweeted that Iran’s "nuclear objective is very legitimate and reasonable: to accelerate the peaceful nuclear program."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is considering a sharp escalation in the sanctions campaign: a global ban on Iranian oil and a de facto commercial embargo. Under the proposed measures, countries that do not stop buying Iranian crude would be denied access to the U.S. banking system. A recent study by Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) and Roubini Global Economics concludes that 2013 is a viable year for measures that would reduce the supply of Iranian oil by roughly 1.5 million bpd. According to the study, such a reduction would not drive up oil prices or have a negative impact on the global economy, given decreased global demand in oil, and increased supply from non-OPEC members, as well as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Libya. (See full report here.) Oil and other commercial transactions with Iran might be further reduced by targeting foreign companies engaging in "significant financial transactions" with a long list of Iranian banks.
Congress and the administration are moving on other fronts as well. On May 8, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to close a foreign exchange loophole in sanctions policy. Under the measure, Iran would be denied access to an estimated $100 billion in foreign currency reserves, mostly euros, parked in foreign banks. On May 9, the State Department imposed sanctions on four Iranian companies and one individual for activities in support of production of enriched uranium and heavy water. And on July 1, the U.S. will begin enforcing a global ban on gold trading -- another avenue Iran has been exploiting to evade sanctions.
Both houses of Congress are moving forward with new sanctions in the wake of stalled diplomacy, and despite a call for delay by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 18, Secretary Kerry said that June 14 presidential elections in Iran made a political breakthrough unlikely and asked Congress "to be a little patient." And earlier, following the Almaty talks in April, Secretary Kerry struck a relatively upbeat note, saying that "somewhat of a gap remains," but that "the door is still open" and that “it is important to continue to talk and to try to find common ground."
However, common ground has been decidedly lacking in talks with Iran, even with concessions by the P5+1. In February negotiations, the group eased its position, proposing that Iran "significantly restrict" its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and suspend enrichment at its fortified underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, in exchange for relief from sanctions on trade in precious metals and petrochemical products. Last year, the P5+1 had taken a tougher line, calling for all 20 percent uranium to be shipped out of the country and for Fordow to be shut down.
Amid these developments, Iran continues to establish important facts on the ground -- most recently with the installation of advanced IR-2m centrifuges at its commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz. According to the IAEA's February report, nearly 200 IR-2m centrifuges have been installed and the head of Iran’s atomic energy organization has since announced that a total of 3,000 would be operational "in the near future." The IR-2m can enrich uranium at a rate several times faster than the first generation IR-1 centrifuges now in use.
Iran also has expanded the number of its older IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz, according to the IAEA report. Some 12,670 such centrifuges are now installed -- 2,250 more than last November -- and Iran is in the process of installing an additional 11,000. About 9,000 of these machines were enriching uranium to the level of 3.5 percent U-235 when IAEA inspectors last visited the plant. As of early February, Iran's stockpile of this low-enriched uranium gas contained nearly 6,000 kg, an amount sufficient -- with further enrichment and processing -- to fuel five implosion bombs according to the Wisconsin Project's estimates. For details, see "Iran's Nuclear Timetable."
Iran also has a growing stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, which is much closer to weapon-grade. The IAEA reported that Iran has now produced 280 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium gas, though about 40 percent of this amount has been converted into research reactor fuel. The Wisconsin Project estimates that the remaining stockpile would be sufficient to fuel one nuclear weapon, if the material were further enriched. Media reports, citing Israeli sources, estimate that Iran would need about 240 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel one weapon.
Iran’s effort to produce 20 percent enriched uranium is based principally at Fordow. Iran is now enriching uranium in only 696 of the nearly 3,000 first generation IR-1 centrifuges installed there. If fully operational, the plant could produce about 40 kg of this 20 percent material each month, enough to fuel approximately three nuclear weapons annually, according to Wisconsin Project estimates, if the material were further enriched to weapon-grade.
Questions about weaponization work remain open, despite repeated meetings between the IAEA and Iran. In April, the IAEA suggested for the first time that work on a nuclear explosive device continued to the present day. In an April 2 interview with the Associated Press, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said the agency has "information indicating that Iran was engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices in the past and now." Days later, Mr. Amano made similar comments at a security conference in Washington, D.C.
Also in April, Mr. Amano expressed frustration at Iran's continued refusal to allow international inspectors access to Parchin, a military site linked to bomb work. Restrictions by Iran on the scope of the visit would hamper inspectors, according to Amano, who said "if our hands and legs are bound, we can't do our job."