High Stakes in New Nuclear Talks With Iran

A Summary of Findings from an Iran Watch Roundtable Discussion
February 21, 2013

Publication Type: 

  • Articles and Reports

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Talks with Iran over its nuclear program resume next week in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The stakes are high. Pressure from sanctions has increased, but Iran’s nuclear progress continues as well. Last year, the P5+1 negotiating partners – the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – offered Iran an interim deal that addressed some immediate concerns, but did not close off all avenues to acquisition of nuclear weapons. The deal called for Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent (a short dash away from weapon-grade material), send its existing 20 percent stockpile out of the country, and close the fortified enrichment plant at Fordow. In exchange, Iran would be provided with limited economic and technical support. The talks broke down in June.

On the eve of the new talks, it is time to ask whether the interim offer still makes sense. Should the P5+1 pursue a partial deal where immediate concerns – 20 percent enriched uranium, Fordow – are addressed first? Or should the group hold out for an overall nuclear settlement? Recently, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control hosted a roundtable discussion of Iran experts to address these questions.(*) The moderator’s full report of the roundtable is available here. Among the panel’s specific findings:

The threat from Iran’s nuclear program will not be contained by an interim or partial deal.

The panelists agreed that an interim agreement would fail to counter the overall threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program, and could take away the urgency of dealing with it. The panelists noted that last year’s offer by the P5+1 failed to address Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, where approximately 10,000 centrifuges are producing lower-grade uranium. It also did not address the workshops for making those centrifuges, the existing stockpiles of low-enriched uranium sufficient to fuel nuclear weapons if further enriched, and the heavy water reactor at Arak, also a potential threat. Nor was Iran required to explain evidence that it conducted research necessary to build nuclear weapons.

However, some panelists argued that an interim deal is still worth considering if it takes the pressing threat of 20 percent enriched uranium off the table and answers questions about weaponization. Concessions on these issues could merit striking a less-than-perfect deal. If an interim deal is reached, it should also require Iran to increase transparency and lay out a timetable for reaching an overall agreement.

An overall settlement with Iran must remove all paths to nuclear weapon capability.

The participants agreed that a comprehensive settlement with Iran must address all elements of Iran’s nuclear program: 20 percent enriched uranium; Fordow; Natanz; Arak; and the low-enriched uranium stockpile. Iran would have to cooperate with an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into allegations of nuclear weapon-related research and agree to the implementation of a robust IAEA inspection mechanism.

Iran has not exhibited the behavior typical of a country that has decided to change course and limit its nuclear program.

The panelists concluded there is no indication that Iran is ready to make the large-scale political changes that usually precede a decision to give up a nuclear weapon program. In Libya, for example, there was a gradual opening to the world before the country agreed to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapon programs. The cases of Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa also illustrate the historic correlation between large-scale political change and the termination of nuclear weapon programs. The panelists agreed that Iran does not appear to be undergoing such a change at the present. The panelists therefore found that until the nature of the regime undergoes a political transformation – something that would affect a far wider range of issues in Iran than the nuclear program – a comprehensive nuclear settlement is unlikely.


(*) The panelists were Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle East Affairs at the Congressional Research Service; Stephen Rademaker, a National Security Project Advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a Principal at the Podesta Group; Michael Singh, Managing Director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy; and Leonard Spector, Deputy Director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Mr. Katzman participated in this discussion in his personal capacity as an Iran expert, and not as a representative of the Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress, or the United States Congress. This is the moderator’s summary of the roundtable discussion. The findings are a composite of the panelists’ individual views. No finding should be attributed to any single panelist, or be seen as a statement of policy of any government.