Bloomberg: Offer Iran nuclear deal with right to enrich

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Bloomberg View editors propose a list of ways President Obama can “remake the world” in 2013. Among them, they say: offer Iran a deal that would allow it to conduct 3.5% enrichment for energy purposes, in exchange for tighter IAEA monitoring and verification:

On Iran, the U.S. should continue to lead the global sanctions effort. Yet it should simultaneously reopen the door to a deal under which Iran complies with International Atomic Energy Agency demands on monitoring, access and information, and halts nuclear fuel production — with the exception of enriching uranium to the maximum 3.5 percent level that is required to fuel civilian power stations, a level of enrichment that’s a red line for Iran. A fully monitored Iranian low-enrichment program entails risks and may not satisfy the government in Israel. But it has as good a chance of blocking Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon as airstrikes, with fewer risks and unintended consequences.

The emerging consensus?

Earlier this month, Jean-David Levitte, the former diplomatic advisor to France's hawkish former Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozky, also proposed offering Iran a last-ditch, take it or leave it deal that would allow it to enrich to 3.5%, Jim Hoagland reported at the Washington Post last week (Dec. 28): Continue reading

Good cop, bad cop: Iran nuclear chief defiant on key demand

Iran’s hardline nuclear chief vowed Tuesday that Iran would continue to produce 20% enriched uranium as long as it needs, in defiance of a key international demand in negotiations expected to resume in the coming weeks.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will not suspend 20 percent uranium enrichment because of the demands of others,” Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (AEOI), was cited Tuesday by Iranian news agencies, Reuters reported.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will produce 20 percent enriched uranium to meet its needs and for however long it is required,” he said.

Iran has said it needs to domestically enrich the 20% fuel to provide isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients.

Abbasi’s comments came a day after Iran’s foreign minister struck a conciliatory tone, expressing optimism about prospects for progress at upcoming nuclear talks. “Both sides … have concluded that they have to exit the current impasse,” Salehi said Monday (Dec 17). “Iran wants its legitimate and legal right and no more.”

Diplomats are still uncertain when a new round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 will be held, though the working assumption is that it will come together next month. A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Tuesday they had still not heard back from Iran on dates they had proposed last week.

“We did make an offer with regard to venue and timing for another round, but we have yet to hear from the Iranians on this,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at a press conference Monday. “So really, the ball is in the Iranians’ court.”

Amid the uncertainty on the P5+1 track,  Iran expressed interest in moving forward with talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A senior IAEA team visited Iran this month, pronouncing it a useful visit, and is due to return January 16th. Continue reading

P5+1 to propose new meeting dates to Iran

Diplomats from six world powers, following further unpublicized consultations in recent days, have decided to propose to Iran dates for holding a new round of nuclear talks as early as this month, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor Monday. However, a meeting is not expected to materialize before January, they said.

Diplomats from five of the six nations in the so-called P5+1 also agreed in their latest consultation to “update” the package presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May, the diplomatic sources said, although they downplayed expectations for major changes to the package. In addition, one country, believed to be Russia, had not yet formally signed on to that decision, one expert briefed by the US administration told Al-Monitor Monday, adding that it was his understanding the dissenting nation wanted a more revamped, generous package. That position is apparently now at odds with the consensus of other members of the international negotiating group, comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia.

“Dates in December will be proposed, but I doubt a meeting will materialize before January,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

“The package needs a little bit of updating, as things have evolved since the package was defined, but nothing radical is to be expected,” the diplomat added.

A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, asked by Al-Monitor Monday about the consultations, said that a date for the next round of Iran nuclear negotiations “is still under discussion.” There had been no physical meeting of the P5+1 in recent days, he added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to the Saban Forum of Middle East experts in Washington late last month, alluded to intense consultations on the issue of what the international group should present to Iran at resumed nuclear talks.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton told the  Saban Forum November 30th.

The Obama administration had in recent weeks been debating whether the “stop, shut and ship” package presented to Iran last May should be “refreshed” and possibly broadened to what some in the administration called “more for more.” The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the Baghdad 20% proposal to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

But the diplomatic sources told Al Monitor Monday that the changes to the package were not expected to be large scale.

Some Washington Iran watchers expressed concern at the contradictory signals the international group was sending, including regarding their sense of urgency for getting back to negotiations, in light of the fact no new talks had been scheduled more than a month after the US presidential elections, held November 6th. Continue reading

Senate letter urges Obama to toughen demands on Iran nuclear deal

Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Joseph Lieberman (Indep.-Conn.), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) are circulating a letter to fellow members that urges President Obama not to offer Iran any sort of concessions or sanctions relief if and until a comprehensive nuclear deal is reached. It also expresses skepticism about any nuclear deal that would allow Iran to maintain enrichment capabilities, although it doesn’t explicitly rule it out.

“First, we strongly believe there should be absolutely no diminution of pressure on the Iranians until the totality of their nuclear problem has been addressed,” the draft letter circulated to other Senators on Thursday said. “The time for limited confidence building measures is over.”

“We remain very skeptical of any proposal that would allow the current Iranian government to possess an enrichment capability in any form, given its long track record of deceptive and illicit conduct,” the letter also states. “We also believe that, at an absolute minimum, a successful resolution of the Iranian nuclear file must include the complete closure of the Fordow facility; full cooperation by Iran with the IAEA … and an extremely intrusive and comprehensive inspection regime for the foreseeable future.“

The letter also calls on President Obama to reiterate his readiness to undertake military action if Iran does not desist.

The Senate offices circulating the letter set a deadline of December 13th for signatures. That is the date that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is due to send a team to Iran for further consultations.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington Thursday, said the agency has a robust dialogue with Iran, but is seeking concrete results in terms of its requests for access to sites, people and information.

“We did not say Iran has nuclear weapons. We did not say it has made a decision to make nuclear weapons,” Amano said. “We have credible information that Iran has engaged in activities relevant to nuclear weapons… Without clarifying these issues,” the IAEA can’t give assurances that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes, the IAEA chief said. Continue reading

Israel’s Netanyahu urges ‘red line’ on Iran nuclear enrichment

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a red marker and Road Runner-type cartoon chart of a nuclear bomb to tell the United Nations Wednesday where Israel would draw a red line on Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

“Here’s a diagram. This is a bomb. This is a fuse,” Netanyahu told the UN gathering. “In the case of Iran’s nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium.”

“Where’s Iran? Iran’s completed the first stage. …and they’re 70 percent of the way there,” the Israeli leader said. “Now they’re well into the second stage. And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Despite the cartoon-ish graphics, which almost seemed to mock recent Israeli government near hysteria about the urgency of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear advances, Netanyahu’s speech “put the focus where it should be: on Iran’s program and not on President Obama,” David Makovsky, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor.

Notably, Makovsky said, Netanyahu revealed that the United States and Israel had opened discussions on Iran red lines.

“Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together,” Netanyahu told the world body.

The Israeli leader’s remarks Wednesday also seemed to allow that there are several more months–until the spring at least–before Israel would feel compelled to take military action if the international community has not reached a diplomatic agreement with Iran.

(Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.)

IAEA on Iran: 1000 more centrifuges installed at Fordo, but no net gain in 20% stockpile


While Iran has produced about 43 KG of 20% higher enriched uranium since May, its available “stockpile” of 20% remains almost unchanged in that time, a new UN atomic energy agency report finds. That’s because Iran has converted over half of its 20% stockpile for use in a medical reactor.

Those are among the mix of puzzling and concerning facts in the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran which show growing IAEA exasperation with Iranian stonewalling on granting inspectors access to a site where suspected military research occurred.

Iran has installed over a 1,000 more centrifuges in the fortified, underground Fordow enrichment facility near Qom–a doubling since May, the new IAEA report, released Thursday, found. But it does not appear that most of those centrifuges are yet operating. All the newly installed centrifuges are also of Iran’s first-generation, IR-1 model, less powerful than newer designs.

“Iran has not increased the number of centrifuge cascades producing 20 percent LEU at either” of its two enrichment sites, Fordow or Natanz, the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS) noted in an analysis of the new report..

As of August 2012, Iran has produced almost 190 KG of 20% enriched uranium since it began the higher level enrichment work in early 2011, the report says. However, Iran has converted over half of that total amount — about 98 KG — for use in fuel plates for a medical reactor, thus leaving only about 91 KG available that could be higher enriched to weapons grade. That represents almost no net gain in its 20% stockpile since May, arms control analysts noted.

“Although Iran has enriched additional uranium to almost 20%–a level that could be more quickly turned into weapons material–Tehran has converted much of this material to reactor fuel,” the Arms Control Association wrote in an analysis of the new IAEA report Thursday. “Thus Iran’s available stockpile of 20% enriched uranium (91 kg) is essentially unchanged from May.”

It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to “weapons grade’–90%  purity —to make enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. However, Iran is unlikely to “break out” without enough fissile material to make two or more bombs, many  arms control experts believe.

Even if Iran may accumulate 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium, “this is only the first step to a nuclear weapon capability,” the Arms Control Association analysis continues. In addition, Iran would still need “time to produce the nuclear device itself (likely several months), which it has never done before, and then develop and probably explosively test a warhead that could fit on a ballistic missile, which would take still more time.”

What to make of the fact that there has been no net growth in Iran’s 20% stockpile since May? Is Iran demonstrating tacit restraint on the sensitive 20% front even while doubling the number of centrifuges installed, if not operating, at Fordo, to signal potential for further expanding enrichment? Is it some sort of signal from Iran towards potential flexibility on the 20% front?  (Former Iran nuclear negotiators Syed Hossein Mousavian has, for instance, proposed a “zero 20% stockpile” idea, under which there could be international supervision that Iran would produce only the amount of 20% it needs for medical purposes.)

“It is a plausible interpretation that there is a signal here,” George Perkovich, director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Monitor by email. “Nothing would be lost in seeking to explore it with the Iranians.  We needn’t guess: the involved states should try to find out.”

Other elements of the report document growing IAEA exasperation with Iranian run around and open defiance on one front. Continue reading

Iran’s UN envoy on war, peace, and nuclear diplomacy

Iran’s envoy to the United Nations Mohammad Khazaee sat down with Barbara Slavin and myself for a long interview Tuesday to discuss the Iran nuclear negotiations.

“It is possible to close the gap,” Khazaee told us, referring to the two sides’ mismatched proposals for resolving the nuclear dispute. But tremendous mistrust prevails on both sides.

I asked Khazaee about international insistence  that Iran take the first step–something more concrete than the Supreme Leader’s re-issuance of his fatwa against nuclear weapons.

He suggested  that agreement on a 20% deal was “not off the table.”

He also revealed some more details about the P5+1’s proposal to Iran, beyond the requests that Iran take as a first step: stop 20% enrichment, ship out its 20% stockpile, and stop operations at Fordo. He noted what he described as highly provisional language used for proposed reciprocal steps offered in the P5+1 package. “There is no promise in the proposal. “There is ‘consideration, thinking, trying,”’ he said, before giving several examples.

“Step two was capping enrichment at 5% as well as [ending production of] the heavy water in Arak, in exchange for ‘thinking, finding a way’ for removal of unilateral sanctions,” the Iranian envoy said.

The third step “is that Iran should implement fully the Security Council resolutions,”  requiring Iran to suspend all enrichment,” he said. “Then they will ‘consider’ remov[ing] the [UN] sanctions.”

Still, he acknowledged, the P5+1 proposal as he described seemed to lay out at least a provisional road-map for longer term easing of sanctions and normalization of international ties that Iran says it has been seeking. Continue reading

Operation “Olympic Games”: Report details US role in cyber-weapon targeting Iran centrifuges

The Obama administration pursued a Bush-era US-Israeli cyber-offensive aimed at setting back Iran’s nuclear program, David Sanger reports in the New York Times Friday.

Code-named “Olympic Games,” and initiated in 2006, the cyber-operation targeted the computer systems that run the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

But the operation, undertaken by the U.S. National Security Agency and its Israeli counterpart, went through various phases and updates, and in 2010, there was a big glitch: the Stuxnet worm spread beyond its intended target of Natanz to other facilities, and soon caught the attention of computer security experts around the world. And as Sanger reports, when US intelligence officials had to brief Obama about the alarming development, naturally, they initially blamed their Israeli partners for modifying the program without telling them:

At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s “escape,” Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised.

“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked […] Continue reading

Glimmers of optimism for Iran confidence-building deal ahead of Baghdad

The Guardian‘s longtime Iran watcher Julian Borger sees signs for cautious optimism ahead of the next round of nuclear talks in Baghdad next week:

My understanding is that Ali Bagheri, the deputy Iranian negotiator, got in touch with his opposite number at the EU, Helga Schmid, the day after the Istanbul talks to ensure that the ball kept rolling. In the run-up to the next round of talks in Baghdad next Wednesday, the two have met at an undisclosed location to draw up an agenda. Continue reading