Iran is still at the negotiating table — and still not cooperating


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari in Baghdad August 24, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • The refusal to provide access to Parchin is a clear indicator that the Iranian regime has no intention of cooperating genuinely with the IAEA.

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  • Iranian negotiators have lobbied to ensure that any constraints on their publicly known nuclear activities are time-limited.

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  • We are unlikely to see any surprises over the next few months as the late November deadline for an agreement approaches.

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Iranian officials announced last week that they have tested a new, advanced centrifuge machine and, separately, refused to grant international inspectors access to the Parchin military complex - a facility linked to nuclear weapons-related experimentation.

In 2012, the UN noted that the Iranians had begun trying to scrub the facility shortly after the UN identified it, and understanding what took place there is a central aspect of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) ongoing investigation. The refusal to provide access to the facility and transparency into the activities there is a clear indicator that the Iranian regime has no intention of cooperating genuinely with the IAEA. These developments are more than mere posturing - they are a harbinger of what lies ahead.

Representatives from the P5+1 - the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China - and Iran will resume negotiations over Iran's nuclear program during the next few weeks. The diplomatic niceties sure to follow should not obscure the reality that, with less than three months left until the revised deadline for an agreement, the talks are headed for collapse, another extension, or the consummation of a deal that endangers US national security interests.

American negotiators have attempted to secure a broader nuclear agreement with Iran building on the interim deal signed in November 2013. We now have nine months' worth of Iranian rhetoric and behavior as a basis for judging Tehran's intentions and perceptions. Iran's leaders have not budged in any meaningful way on the core issues.

They want to retain fuel production capabilities, allowing for both uranium and plutonium paths to nuclear weapons. They have insisted on maintaining domestic uranium enrichment, which the P5+1 has already ceded to them under the interim deal. They are developing advanced centrifuge machines with higher capacity.

The Iranians have also refused to dismantle the Arak heavy water reactor. All of the proposals that they have offered would allow continued plutonium production and, in the case of an offer to reduce output, the ability to quickly restore production levels to allow for enough plutonium for about two weapons annually. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Ali Akbar Salehi announced recently that Iranian technicians are modifying the reactor "to ease the worries of certain countries." These are most likely cosmetic modifications that may temporarily reduce plutonium production but are easily reversible.

Iran's responses to other aspects of the nuclear issue have been equally underwhelming. The IAEA has tried for years to get Iran to cooperate with its investigation into Iran's nuclear weapons-related work. The basis of the investigation is a credible body of evidence the agency published an overview of in November 2011. Iranian officials have gone through the motions of interacting with the IAEA, but the substance of the interactions is hollow.

They have stuck to the line that the IAEA's investigation is without merit, challenging the agency's findings as fabrications or dismissing their connections to the nuclear program. They claim, for instance, that work on fast-acting detonators was strictly for energy industry applications, an explanation that the IAEA has not deemed adequate. Senior Iranian officials and the military have also shielded Iranian scientists involved in Iran's weaponization efforts from the IAEA's investigation despite repeated requests by inspectors for interviews with specific personnel. Iran has also repeatedly declared the ballistic missile program, in and of itself a security threat but also a potential delivery mechanism for nuclear warheads, off limits.

Perhaps most importantly, Iranian negotiators have lobbied to ensure that any constraints on their publicly known nuclear activities are time-limited. The concept of a sunset provision for a deal, which the P5+1 has already agreed to, guarantees that any agreement is neither comprehensive nor permanent. Iranian officials have floated a period of seven years for the "final" agreement, after which the country's nuclear program will have no restrictions. Iran's positions preclude a final deal that can permanently roll back its nuclear weapons capability and instill confidence in its intentions.

The prospect that Iran will alter its positions fundamentally in this next round is dim. It is clear that the regime's leadership has not yet felt the type of overwhelming pressure likely necessary to force it to rethink its strategic aims and abandon the development of nuclear weapons capability. The lack of an agreement thus far suggests that whatever pressure had built up before November 2013 was not enough to compel Iranian negotiators to roll back the nuclear program. The P5+1 has encouraged this resistance by failing to maintain the specter of increased costs, and caving into key Iranian demands up front that overturned previously held positions, including regarding uranium enrichment.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ran his campaign last year on alleviating economic pressure, which was real, but neither he nor Iran's leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei apparently believed the regime was on its last legs. They did not assess that economic collapse was imminent and that they therefore needed to trade in their nuclear weapons capability in exchange for sanctions relief. This belief has most likely been reinforced over the past nine months as a result of the interim deal, after investors began lining up to enter Iranian markets, Iran began receiving cash transfers, and Iran's crude oil sales exceeded caps.

What will change over the next few weeks and months that will force the Iranians to reverse course, come clean, and begin dismantling their military nuclear program? Is there a prospect for new sanctions that will apply massive, rapid economic pressure? Will Khamenei begin to fear that President Barack Obama will take direct military action to roll back Iran's nuclear program? Will he decide that the regime's strategic ambitions - which drive his pursuit for nuclear weapons capability - are no longer worth pursuing? The answer to these questions is almost certainly No.

We are unlikely to see any surprises over the next few months as the late November deadline for an agreement approaches. The inherent danger is that under any of the plausible scenarios, including one in which there is no deal, Iran will continue developing its nuclear weapons capability and the broader threat - the regime, its ideology, and its strategic ambitions - will remain unchallenged.

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About the Author


  • Maseh Zarif is the deputy director and Iran research Team Lead for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. He works on national security issues related to the Middle East and South Asia, with a particular focus on Iran’s nuclear program and its regional activities. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, and Foreign Policy, among others, and has appeared on CNN and Fox. Before joining AEI, he worked for several years in corporate finance as an analyst and a consultant.

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