Diplomats hoping for Iran nuclear talks in late January

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Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy participates at a meeting of the E3 + 3 on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The latest on long anticipated P5+1 Iran talks: They are not happening next week, as western negotiators had been hoping.

A Western diplomat told the Back Channel Friday that efforts are now underway to  arrange a meeting at the end of the month, but cautioned that no date or venue had yet been agreed.

“Nothing confirmed,” a second, European official said Saturday.

An unnamed Russian official reportedly said Friday that nuclear negotiations would resume at the end of January in Istanbul. That followed  Russia’s lead negotiator Sergei Ryabkov criticizing the long pause in talks. Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran held three rounds of talks last spring and summer. Expectation that talks would resume shortly after the US presidential elections in November have not materialized, however, as in recent weeks Iran has not responded to at least two dates proposed by the six parties. “This becomes unclear and sends a wrong signal,” Ryabkov was cited by Itar-Tass Jan. 9.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel. Continue reading

Reading list: Red lines, not deadlines, on Iran

  • “The U.S. is ‘not setting deadlines’ for Iran and still considers negotiations as ‘by far the best approach’ to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. (Indira Lakshmanan, Bloomberg)
  • “Israel and the United States are in discussion on setting a ‘red line’ for Iran’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.” (Reuters)
  • “We call on the government in Iran to come back to the table with substantial offers, which is very necessary and very crucial at this time.” (German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Reuters)
  • IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, ahead of IAEA board of governors meeting Monday, calls for immediate access to Iran site, says he’s frustrated. (IAEA; Reuters)
  • “What statesmen do when faced with bad options is create new ones. The third choice in this case is to negotiate a deal that lets Iran enrich uranium for civilian use….that applies rigorous safeguards…that gradually relaxes sanctions and brings this wayward country into the community of more-or-less civilized nations.”  (Bill Keller, New York Times)
  • “Immediately after the US presidential election, …Ehud Barak is certain to resume his antics and carry on where he has left off, and the countdown will start all over again.” (Ben Caspit, Maariv/Al-Monitor)

EU-3 call for toughening sanctions on Iran amid diplomatic stalemate

The British, French and German foreign ministers called Friday for intensifying European Union sanctions on Iran, as western powers sought to show resolve in the face of Iran’s nuclear defiance and deter possible Israeli military action.

“It is necessary to increase pressure on Iran, to intensify sanctions, to add further to EU sanctions that are already enforced,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters ahead of an informal meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Cyprus Friday, Reuters reported.

“Sanctions are necessary and soon. I can’t see there is really a constructive will on the Iranian side for substantial talks,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Reuters.

The United States has also prepared a new file of sanctions that are aimed at squeezing Iranian financial reserves, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

The show of resolve came as nuclear negotiations between six world powers and Iran remain at an impasse. Three rounds of meetings this year, and European oil sanctions that went into effect in July,  have so far failed to persuade Iran to agree to international demands that it “stop, ship and shut” its higher level 20% uranium enrichment activities and close its fortified Fordow enrichment facility. Iran has said it would be willing to discuss ending its 20% enrichment but wants recognition of its right to lower level enrichment for energy purposes, and sanctions relief.

Political directors from the P5+1, conferring in a conference call last week, decided not to hold another P5+1/Iran meeting at this time, the diplomatic sources said.

Of the six nations that make up the group–the United States, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia–only Moscow’s envoy expressed support for another meeting, a western diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Even the Chinese opposed” a meeting now, as no success is expected.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told foreign ministers she’d urged Iran, in a phone call with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator early last month, “to look very carefully at the proposals that have been put forward by the E3+3, so that we can now move forward.”

“Some ministers discussed the possibility of further sanctions,” an EU diplomat told Al-Monitor Friday. “I guess we will come back to this issue as not all ministers spoke, so it’s hard to judge whether there’s consensus or not.”

The EU-3 foreign minister statements Friday were largely intended to rally internal European resolve. They are “a joint reminder…that pressure is needed at the highest level…and to keep all of them motivated despite the adverse economic effect,” a second European diplomat told Al-Monitor Friday on condition of anonymity. “In terms of new sanctions, the thinking is in progress …In the meantime, we need to make sure there is no loophole.”

Efforts by the UN atomic watchdog agency to get access to an Iranian military base are similarly at an impasse. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had been engaging in an extensive clean up at the Parchin base, which some agency inspectors suspect may have been previously used to test a nuclear explosive device. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes.

“Basically the IAEA track is stuck and very much linked to progress in P5+1 talks,” the diplomat said. “The “Iranians are blocking everything on the IAEA track.” Continue reading

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

Q/A with David Albright: Iran should come clean about past research

Two telexes–part of a trove of 1,600 obtained by American nuclear expert David Albright– would seem to suggest that Iran’s current foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was aware of Iran’s efforts to acquire whole body counters to detect nuclear radiation back in the early 1990s. That is among the findings published in a new series of reports by Albright and his colleague Paul Brannan, of the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS).

Albright, in an interview Wednesday, told me that he and Salehi actually have met each other and indeed argued at some “track 2″ events among nuclear experts held in New York in the 1990s.

Salehi insisted Iran “had no secret centrifuge programs,” Albright told me. “I responded that ‘based on procurements, you do.’”

“I always found Salehi pretty duplicitous,” he added. “But what surprised me in the current work we did, is he was apparently more involved than I realized.”

Salehi, a fluent English speaker who earned a PhD from MIT in 1977, served for eight years in Vienna as Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from 1997-2005. (Born in Karbala, Iraq, Salehi is also a fluent Arabic speaker–one of the reasons he was tapped in 2010 to become Iran’s foreign minister, at a time when Arab leaders’ hostility to Iran was unusually publicly exposed, including in classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.). Some Iran experts believe Salehi may be well positioned to run for Iran’s presidency when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term expires in 2013.

Back in 1991–the year of the two Salehi-linked telexes Albright uncovered–Salehi was chancellor at Iran’s Sharif University. Albright’s report suggests that the university was, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, part of a network of academic facilities linked to Iran’s Physics Research Center (PHRC), that were used as cover to acquire dual-use materiel for secret parts of Iran’s nuclear program. American intelligence and ISIS believe that Iran halted its secret military research program in 2003.

But Albright believes it’s essential that Iran own up to past alleged weaponization research in order to come in from the cold.

“If Iran comes clean on weaponization, other things can be solved much more easily,” he told me. Continue reading