Iran nuclear advisor: Almaty 'decisive turning point'

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An advisor to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator has called the nuclear negotiations held in Almaty, Kazakhstan last week a “decisive turning point,” in three years of strategic calculations between the United States and Iran.

Mahdi Mohammadi, the former political editor of Kayhan who attended the Almaty negotiations as a media advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, wrote an analysis of the talks for the Iranian media that was published in English by Iran Review on March 7:

They expected Iran to change, but in practice, it was the United States which changed. I believe that an important mental shift has occurred in the minds of the US statesmen about the definition of a nuclear Iran. As a result of that change, the definition of the red line which should not be crossed by Iran, and the definition of “Iran's nuclear energy program” in a way that the United States would be able to accept it in a face-saving manner, have also changed. The only reason which caused the Baghdad proposal to change in Almaty was a change in the strategic calculations of the United States during the past year.

The updated international proposal presented to Iran in the Almaty talks on February 26-27 requests that Iran suspend operations at Fordo, rather than shutter the facility. It also would allow Iran to produce and keep enough 20% to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor which produces nuclear isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. In exchange, it offered Iran relief from sanctions on the gold trade, and petrochemical sales, diplomatic sources told Al Monitor.

The revised proposal “calls for a suspension of the production of near 20 percent enriched uranium – an element common to the Iranian and P-5+1 positions,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty February 27:

It would significantly restrict the accumulation of near 20 percent enriched uranium in Iran while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.  It would suspend enrichment at Fordo and constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there.  It would call for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures to promote greater transparency in Iran’s nuclear program and provide early warning of any attempt to rapidly or secretly abandon agreed limits and produce weapons-grade uranium.

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In exchange for these constraints, the Almaty proposal would build on the Baghdad proposal by offering some steps to ease sanctions on Iran.  [...] In keeping with that principle that sanctions easing should be proportionate to the measures accepted by Iran, the sanctions easing offered at this initial stage do not deal with the sanctions currently having the greatest impact, mainly oil and financial sanctions.  [...]

Nonetheless, the sanctions easing steps contained in the Almaty proposal are meaningful and would be of substantial benefit to Iran.  They do include pledges to refrain from additional UN Security Council and European Union sanctions imposed as a result of the nuclear issue.  They also include a suspension of a number of significant U.S. and EU sanctions.

Iranian reaction to the Almaty talks has been notably positive, while western reaction has been more muted.

“They”–the Iranians–“are really upbeat about these negotiations,” an Iran analyst told the Back Channel Wednesday following a meeting with Iran’s envoy to the United Nations. However, some members of the P5+1 “don’t like the positive spin. They think the Iranians want to portray ‘we won.’”

The sanctions relief presented in the updated package is the most generous the six world powers could offer at this time given the level of mistrust and legislative constraints associated with most sanctions imposed, said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group which last week published a detailed analysis of the sanctions imposed on Iran and the complexity of unwinding them.

“After six months looking at the sanctions regime, the offer could not be more generous,” Vaez told the Back Channel. Continue reading

Iran nuclear advisor sets out ‘maximalist’ stance as Iran mulls new talks

Iran's IAEA ambassador Soltanieh and Iran's IAEA advisor Asgari attend a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in ViennaAmid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi, the former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.

The other is Hamid-Reza Asgari, the low-profile legal advisor to Iran’s Atomic Energy organization and senior non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s National Security Council. Asgari led Iran’s team to technical talks with arms control officials from the United States and other P5+1 powers in Istanbul July 3rd.. Asgari previously met with American, as well as Russian and French diplomats, in Vienna on October 21, 2009 to discuss the details of a nuclear fuel swap deal that later fell apart amid domestic infighting in Iran.

Asgari “is the real boss,” the Iranian source told the Back Channel.

“The two sides, according to Tehran, should first address each other’s concerns,”  Mohammadi wrote in Iran Review January 9th:

The United States should, thus, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and Iran, in return, will announce that it has no plan to build nuclear weapons. In the next stage, the US and the European Union should remove all unilateral sanctions against Iran and Iran, for its part, will take immediate steps to address the remaining concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which the Western countries claim to be very important. In fact, a new round of IAEA’s inspections of and access to Iran’s nuclear sites will begin. In the third stage, Iran will be ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran. [...]

The proposal, which would not have Iran negotiate curbing its higher 20% uranium enrichment activities until the third step, after the lifting of US and European sanctions, might be viewed as a disheartening sign that Iran may still not be prepared to seriously negotiate. At the same time, it could be read as an Iranian effort not to appear over-eager for a deal, ahead of anticipated negotiations Tehran does hope will lead to sanctions relief.

“It’s all part of the pre-negotiation negotiation,” analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested.

“Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands,” Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Back Channel Tuesday. “And clearly these so-called reciprocal concessions are not in the ballpark for what the six powers can accept. Because Iran is not really giving up anything other than 20%. No mention of Fordo, of its stockpile [of enriched uranium] and no limits on its 5% production.”

“Considering that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad repeatedly said Iran could stop 20% in exchange for fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, now Iran is demanding everything for stopping 20%,” Fitzpatrick continued. “That is not a reasonable position for the P5. And they [the Iranians] need to get in the room and talk seriously.”

The publication of Tehran’s proposal comes as western negotiators have been waiting with growing discouragement for Iran to respond to numerous attempts to schedule a new round of talks with six world powers.

“We have spoken to them a number of times since before the new year and have offered dates and venue, but they still don’t come back with a straight answer,” Michael Mann, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told the Back Channel Monday. 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

New IAEA report shows Iran approaching Israeli, not U.S. red line

A former U.S. official offers a very compelling analysis of why the United States and Israel seem to be experiencing more friction following the release (Aug. 30) of the new IAEA report (.pdf) on Iran. He offered to share his views on background:

To me, the most important/interesting aspects of the IAEA report are the following facts:

1. Iran is massively expanding its capacity at Fordow (2,100 of 3,000 centrifuges installed).

2. They have not expanded the number of machines spinning to 20% and have converted a bunch of 20% to fuel for the [Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, meaning no net increase of material they can use to rapidly produce bomb-grade material.

This is a brilliant combo, since #1 moves Iran closer to the zone of immunity (giving them a greater capacity Israel can’t destroy), approaching an Israeli red line. But #2 self-consciously avoids approaching a U.S. red line.

[For Iran], the very difference between pushing up against Israel’s red line while staying far short of Washington’s is a win-win: it guarantees Israeli-U.S. friction in the near-term (which we are seeing); and, if Israel attacks, it tees Iran up to play the victim on the back end and break-out of their isolation. The upshot: they are daring the Israelis to attack in a context where the strike would be viewed as premature by the U.S. (and everybody else).

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

‘Intense’ Iran nuclear talks end with agreement to meet again

Amman_Iran and six nations ended two days of “intense” and difficult nuclear talks in Baghdad late Thursday with no breakthroughs but a plan to meet again in Moscow next month, I report with Barbara Slavin on the front page:

The chief international negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton, announced that another meeting would be held in Moscow, with delegations arriving June 17 and meeting June 18-19. She described the two days of discussions with the Iranians in Baghdad as “very intense and detailed.”

American and European diplomats also offered more insight into their theory that their leverage in the negotiations will increase as new sanctions move forward–not by offering Iran a way to avert them.

“Maximum pressure is not yet being felt in Iran,” a senior American diplomat told a group of journalists at the conclusion of the Baghdad talks, on the condition of anonymity. European Union sanctions on Iranian oil and US sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, both due to be fully implemented in July, “increase leverage on the negotiation as it proceeds forward,” the official said.

“The Iranians don’t like it,” the diplomat continued. “They hope and would rather we not put additional sanctions on. Indeed they are not at all pleased that soon after Istanbul, the president [Barack Obama] signed a new executive order [sanctioning Iran for supplying technical assistance to Syria to repress dissidents]. We heard about that.”

Notably, the P5+1 did not make public the detailed package of inducements for a confidence building measure under which Iran would curb its 20% enrichment, as western diplomats indicated earlier in the week they planned to do. Perhaps a sign they may be prepared to sweeten the deal some ahead of the next meeting in Moscow next month, given how coldly it was received by the Iranians.

That’s how negotiations work, perhaps.

Lead American envoy to the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, travels from Amman Jordan today to Israel to consult with Israeli leaders about the talks. She may travel on to Saudi Arabia after that or return to Washington.

Read our full piece here.