Talks in Moscow between the P5+1 and Iran have apparently hit the same wall that ended last month’s Baghdad meeting. The West wants Iran to halt its 20% enrichment, ship its 20% stockpile out of the country, and close down Fordo. And what is it willing to give in return? Safety upgrades for an Iranian civil nuclear reactor and some airplane parts. The West’s negotiating position does not address either of Iran’s desiderata: sanctions relief and acknowledgement of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.
The one redeeming feature of this offer is that it could be construed as an implicit acceptance of a civilian nuclear program in Iran, but … seriously? The West is expecting Iran to give up some of its best bargaining chips for airplane parts?
I can understand the West holding out on an explicit acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium—not because I think that it’s right, but because of political pressure in the US. Although President Obama has distanced himself from the Bush-era zero-enrichment condition, powerful forces in Washington continue to cling to it. Just last month, the House passed a resolution by a vote of 401-11 prescribing Congress’s own desiderata for the Iran negotiations, including a full and complete suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. This resolution has been the centerpiece of AIPAC’s congressional lobbying efforts for many months. So while it isn’t right, it is certainly understandable why the West does not make an explicit declaration before the November elections.
The refusal to negotiate on sanctions is an entirely different matter. While there is significant pressure in the US not to roll-back sanctions, there is, in fact, no need for the US to remove any sanctions at all in order to offer Iran relief: the West can simply postpone the initiation of the EU ban on Iranian oil exports set to take effect July 1.
So why isn’t the P5+1 offering a postponement? The New York Times writes that “the West believes that only the threat of new sanctions has brought Iran to the table.” But such a belief results from a misunderstanding of how sanctions work: it is not the pain that brings Iran to the negotiating table, but the prospect of having some of the pain relieved or put off. Such a position also misses the point: just because you postpone sanctions doesn’t mean that the threat of them is removed. If Iran doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain, the sanctions can still be enacted at a later date.
The West’s stated position also ignores the fact that sanctions have already had a significant effect on Iran’s economy. The International Energy Agency estimates that Iran’s oil exports have fallen about 40% since the beginning of the year, when US-led sanctions on Iran’s central bank came into effect. The sanctions are working so well that the Obama administration has granted exemptions for 17 countries, meaning they can continue importing oil from Iran at reduced rates. The effects of these sanctions wouldn’t disappear should the EU postpone its embargo.
Giving up its 20% enrichment would be a major concession for Iran. Iran uses 20% enriched uranium to manufacture fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which makes medical isotopes for treating Iran’s cancer patients. There is no evidence that its 20% enrichment—or any of Iran’s uranium enrichment, for that matter—is being diverted to non-peaceful purposes. Thus, Iran would be voluntarily giving up an aspect of its civilian nuclear program, which it has a right to as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—a right that Iran wants the West to acknowledge as part of any comprehensive deal. It would also be giving up one of the pressures that brought the West to the negotiating table: its ability to further enrich its 20% stockpile to weapons-grade if it so chooses.
The West and Iran have been close to deals in the past to halt Iran’s 20% enrichment. The central aspect of these deals was a swap of Iran’s 20% enrichment and stockpile for Western supplied fuel for the TRR. At the time, Iran did not have the ability to manufacture its own fuel, so the swap was an attractive deal for both sides. Now that it appears Iran can manufacture fuel plates, the same sort of deal is understandably less attractive for Tehran.
If the West expects Iran to make a major concession, it must be ready to make something in kind. The West cannot demand that Iran give up multiple major concessions—its 20% enrichment and the Fordo facility—for nothing. Trading 20% enrichment for a postponement of the EU oil embargo as a confidence-building and time-buying measure ought to be explored. And if it isn’t, we’ll know who to blame.