What's at Stake in New Nuclear Talks With Iran?

February 21, 2013

Publication Type: 

  • Roundtables

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


  • Kenneth Katzman (*)
  • Stephen Rademaker
  • Michael Singh
  • Leonard Spector

Moderated by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control


There has been a flurry of speculation recently about what to expect from nuclear talks with Iran to be held next week in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Back in December, the United States and its partners dusted off a proposal they had put to Iran earlier in 2012, with the hope that the increasing economic stress caused by sanctions would pull a more compliant Iran back to the negotiating table. Iran’s currency has been in free-fall. Revenue from oil sales is down sharply, while the country’s inflation rate over the past year has soared. As for the United States, it too is under mounting pressure to strike a deal. President Barack Obama has won four more years in office, years during which Iran is highly likely to gain the ability to make nuclear weapons – unless he takes action to prevent it or Iran has a change of heart.

During a series of talks last year, which broke down in June, the United States, along with Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia (the P5+1) had made a definite offer. As an interim measure, they had asked Iran to stop enriching uranium up to 20 percent in the isotope U 235 – a level approaching nuclear weapon grade – and to send its stockpile of that material out of the country. They had also asked Iran to close its new, fortified enrichment plant at Fordow. In exchange, the United States and its partners would offer some economic carrots and perhaps suspend the implementation of severe energy and financial sanctions, which ultimately took effect in July.

On the eve of new talks, it is time to ask whether that offer still makes sense. The pressure of sanctions, both trade and financial, has increased, as has the economic crisis within Iran. But Iran’s nuclear progress continues as well. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has grown; Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium has grown; the plant at Fordow, now complete, will enable Iran to produce more uranium enriched to 20 percent. This month, Iran announced plans to install more efficient centrifuges at its main enrichment plant at Natanz, which could mean a doubling or tripling of its uranium enrichment production rate.

Should the P5+1 continue to pursue a staged approach, where issues of immediate concern like the 20 percent enriched uranium and the plant at Fordow are addressed first? Or should the group hold out for an overall nuclear settlement? What other aspects of Iran’s proliferation sensitive work should be included? The 10,000 gas centrifuges enriching uranium at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, which the United Nations has called on Iran to stop operating? The growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent that Iran has produced at Natanz? The plutonium-producing reactor under construction at Arak, with its associated heavy water plant? Should Iran be forced to address allegations, reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it conducted nuclear research particularly useful for nuclear weapons? There is also the question of unknown sites and the inspection mechanism necessary to detect whether any such sites might exist.

The Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control hosted a roundtable discussion on December 11, 2012, that addressed these questions. 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.

The panelists concluded that if an interim deal is reached, it should, at a minimum, require Iran to increase transparency, submit to robust inspections, and suspend uranium enrichment to 20 percent. Such a deal should also lay out a timetable for reaching an overall agreement with Iran. The participants concluded, however, that the threat from Iran’s nuclear program would not be contained by a partial deal, and that the deal itself would have costs. Some panelists argued that because of these costs, the status quo would be preferable to winning marginal concessions from Iran. This would preserve the momentum of sanctions, and accelerate their impact on Iran’s struggling economy. The panelists agreed that continued pressure is necessary, because Iran has not shown any sign of the political change that has historically preceded a country’s decision to abandon its nuclear program.

Following is the moderators’ summary of the 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.

The threat from Iran’s nuclear program is not likely to be contained by an interim, or partial deal. Several parts of the program are creating the ability to fuel a nuclear weapon; restricting a few of them will not suffice. Some panelists still found merit in pursuing an interim deal; others found it would do more harm than good.

The panelists agreed that it would be a mistake to rush into an interim agreement on a limited part of Iran’s nuclear program without a clear agreement on how to resolve broader issues. An interim agreement would fail to counter the overall threat the Iranian nuclear program poses, and could take away the urgency of dealing with it.
For example, during the talks that broke down last year, the United States and its partners offered Iran a partial deal. They would grant Iran certain concessions if Iran would stop enriching uranium to the level of 20 percent, a level approaching nuclear weapon-grade, send its stockpile of that material out of the country, and close its fortified enrichment plant at Fordow.

That offer, however, failed to address Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, where some 10,000 gas centrifuges are devoted to the task of producing low-enriched uranium. Nor did the offer mention the workshops for making those centrifuges, and a stockpile of low-enriched uranium sufficient to fuel five nuclear weapons if further enriched. Nor did it affect the Arak heavy water reactor that Iran is building, which will yield plutonium in its spent fuel, or a plant dedicated to making heavy water for the reactor. Nor was Iran forced to explain evidence that it conducted research necessary to build fission weapons, including at military sites.

Most panelists concluded that if an interim deal such as the one proposed during talks last year were offered now, it would have a number of disadvantages. Most important, it would legitimize those parts of Iran’s program that were not covered, including uranium enrichment that is required to be suspended under U.N. resolutions. The result would be to redefine, in Iran’s favor, what is acceptable behavior, at least in the short term.

Offering last year’s deal would also be a setback for the nonproliferation regime, especially in the region. It would make it harder for the United States to defend its policy of not tolerating uranium enrichment in the United Arab Emirates and in other countries in the Middle East that are planning nuclear energy programs.

Another risk of an interim deal is that it may become a permanent deal, with Iran getting an eventual pass on anything not included. After such a deal is made, sanctions implementation would slacken. The threat of Iran’s nuclear program would be seen as diminished. The pressure (on everyone) would be reduced. Then, if Iran reneges on future steps it is supposed to take, it could be difficult to rebuild the necessary political support for more sanctions. In addition, national and multilateral sanctions are complex and overlapping: suspending only some of the sanctions without affecting others will be difficult; seeking to re-impose them even more so. If an interim deal rolls back some sanctions in exchange for limited concessions, it could leave Iran in an improved position: Iran could make money from increased oil sales, and still be allowed to keep (and even expand) its enrichment capacity and its enriched uranium stockpile. The political support for the option of military strikes would also be diminished and would have to be rebuilt.

Some panelists agreed that instead of trying for an interim deal already rejected by Iran, the United States and its partners would do well to put everything they want on the table, and wait for Iran’s economy to sink to the point where Iran is forced to acquiesce. This might have the advantage of getting Iran’s economic breaking point to come sooner than it would under a partial deal that relaxed sanctions.

In fact, living with the status quo and waiting for this breaking point may be the best among a series of bad options, according to two panelists. While Iran would continue to expand its nuclear program, the United States and its partners could impose additional sanctions. During this time, the threat of military action could also be enhanced, perhaps through military sales to Israel, military exercises, or regional missile defense tests. Events in the region, for instance the fall of the Assad regime in Syria, could also influence the decision making of Iran’s leaders during this time.

Other panelists argued that an interim deal would still be worth considering, because of the pressing threat from certain parts of Iran’s nuclear program, notably the growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and unanswered questions about weaponization. Concessions from Iran on these issues could be important enough to merit striking a less-than-perfect deal.

One panelist pointed out that an interim deal might be worth testing again because of recent signals coming from Iran. These signals suggest that high-level advisors to the Supreme Leader fear that the regime could become vulnerable if there is more economic hardship. There have been quotes in the press to this effect, which indicate that these advisors are subtly pushing for a return to negotiations with the P5+1, with the aim of securing sanctions relief for the country.

This panelist also found that striking an interim deal could put Iran’s leaders in an awkward position. It would undermine their use of confrontation with the West as a means of consolidating domestic political support. Conversely, their continued refusal of such a deal and the increased sanctions that would result might help shift blame for sanctions to the regime. And in both cases, the interim deal could promote political opposition within Iran.

An overall settlement with Iran should remove all pathways to nuclear weapon capability.

The participants agreed that a comprehensive settlement with Iran would have to deal with all elements of Iran’s nuclear program. To start with, it would have to include the items on the table last year: the uranium enriched to 20 percent and the plant at Fordow, all of which are of immediate concern. But a comprehensive deal must also include other nuclear work that the United Nations has called on Iran to suspend. This would affect Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent, the 10,000 gas centrifuges now enriching uranium at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, and Iran’s plutonium-producing reactor under construction at Arak, with its associated heavy water plant. Iran would have to cooperate with an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into allegations of nuclear weapon-related research. There is also the question of whether Iran is operating nuclear sites that it has not declared to the Agency. In any deal with Iran, it would be necessary to have a robust inspection mechanism capable of detecting any such sites that might exist.

While the panelists agreed that zero enrichment should be the goal of any overall settlement, they acknowledged that Iran is not prepared take this step; insisting on it would scuttle any agreement. Still, some panelists were critical of the Obama administration for too quickly backing away from a position opposing any uranium enrichment in Iran. Two participants argued that Iran would have to be left with some part of its uranium enrichment program as a face-saving device. This would work if Iran agreed to ship all enriched material out of the country, agreed to limit the number of centrifuges at Natanz, and agreed to limit the enrichment program overall. In addition, Iran would have to allow more intrusive inspections by the IAEA, and allow full access to its centrifuge workshops. Some participants were skeptical that Iran would accept such conditions. Intrusive inspections are viewed with high suspicion by Iran’s leaders. And removing all enriched uranium from the country would also remove the (albeit thin) argument made by the Iranian regime that the material is needed to sustain Iran’s nuclear energy program.

U.S. intelligence agencies predict that any dash for the bomb in Iran will occur at secret sites. Thus, a deal should include robust inspections sufficient to find any such sites, and should require Iran to explain its suspicious nuclear research.

Transparency measures were not a main focus of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 last year. They have, however, been at the heart of parallel talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which have been going on for several years. The IAEA has long sought access to the Parchin military complex and to individuals, documents, and sites connected to allegations of nuclear weapon-related research. In May 2012, Iran appeared ready to grant Agency inspectors greater access following a visit by IAEA chief Yukiko Amano to Tehran. Ultimately, however, Iran refused. The panelists agreed that transparency measures should be part of any overall nuclear settlement with Iran. This would mean ratification and implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, robust inspections of Iran’s ongoing nuclear work, and answers to questions about possible weapons research in the past. Such measures are especially important in light of Iran’s history of constructing secret sites, and of conducting undeclared nuclear work.

One participant warned that such inspections would be a very sensitive subject in Iran due to fears that inspectors are spies participating in a plot to overthrow the regime. This participant said that the prospect of international inspectors roaming the country and gaining access to nuclear and military sites would be considered even more sensitive by Iran’s leaders than suspending uranium enrichment. Iran’s reluctance to accept such measures may make it difficult to reach an overall agreement.

Freed from the pressure of a political campaign, the Obama administration seems interested in making a partial deal soon.

The panelists agreed that the Obama administration is eager to make a deal with Iran soon. The administration would like to remove Iran as a top national security issue in order to focus on other parts of its foreign policy agenda. Several panelists concluded that President Obama is now in a position to make a deal that would have met with intense Republican criticism last year, before the election. He is less vulnerable politically. In addition, the American public wants to avoid war, which would make any deal – even an unsatisfactory interim one – appeal to the general public. This domestic political dynamic will make it difficult to argue against any interim deal that is struck by the P5+1, according to the panelists.

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

There is no indication that Iran is ready to make the large-scale political change that would normally precede a decision to give up its nuclear weapon potential. The example of Libya is instructive. Muammar Qaddafi made concessions on terrorism, on victim compensation, and on other matters before finally agreeing to abandon his nuclear weapon effort and other mass destruction weapon programs. Before reaching a decision on weapons, there was a gradual opening to the world, motivated by a desire to end international sanctions and Libya’s isolation. 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, or to be seeking greater openness to the world, like Libya did a decade ago.

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.


(*) 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.