It has been a busy and interesting several weeks since President Obama’s United Nations General Assembly speech on September 24. Here’s a breakdown of the events that have taken place since and a look at what a plausible and mutually beneficial endgame we might expect to see.
• On September 26, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry emerged from the meeting pleased but did not shy away from the many challenges ahead.
• The next day, Iranian Ambassador Reza Najafi and his team of negotiators met with International Atomic Energy Agency officials led by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts. Details were scarce, but Nackaerts did say that the talks were “very constructive.”
• Later that day, President Rouhani made history by breaking the 34 year silence between Iranian and U.S. heads of state when he spoke with President Obama by phone. Afterward, President Obama suggested that deeper ties might be possible if the two sides are able to come to an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
• On September 30, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House where he advocated for the strengthening of sanctions if Iran continues its enrichment program.
• The following day, Netanyahu gave his UN General Assembly speech. He criticized Iran and President Rouhani saying, among other things, “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too.”
• On October 2, the Iranian parliament, including many members loyal to the Iranian supreme leader, announced their support for Rouhani’s diplomatic approach.
• That same day, EU leaders hinted that they may drop abandonment of enrichment from their negotiating demands in Geneva.
• On October 6, Iran called on the West to put a new negotiating offer on the table. Secretary of State Kerry responded the following day by saying Iran must first address the U.S. offer put forth in February which includes ceasing enrichment of uranium to 20% and handing over some current uranium stockpiles to Western powers.
• On the October 6, Pres. Obama quoted U.S. Intelligence estimates that it would take Iran about a year to make a nuclear weapon if it so desired.
• On October 9, Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani reported in an Associated Press interview that Iran might be willing to hand over some of its 20% enriched uranium stockpile. Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi said on the October 13, however, that Iran is not willing to ship its uranium surplus abroad.
• On October 10, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) began drafting a bill that would give the President the authority to go to war with Iran if negotiations fail. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) announced that he would allow some time for negotiations to take place but will only be able to wait until the end of October before going ahead with a sanctions bill targeting Iranian oil sales. Several Senate Democrats both on and off the Banking Committee have also voiced opposition to the easing of sanctions.
• On October 12 it was announced that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman would lead the U.S. delegation accompanied by Adam Szubin, the U.S. government’s foremost expert on sanctions.
• P5+1 talks took place on October 15 and 16. You can see a full rundown here. The talks were encouraging and the parties agreed to meet again on November 7 and 8.
• In the meantime, on October 28, Iran will meet with International Atomic Energy Agency negotiators to discuss possible inspections of nuclear facilities.
Short and long term goals
The confidentiality of the Geneva talks has caused rumors to swirl about Iran’s possible offer; an Iranian source has come forward saying that Iran is willing to convert its 20% enriched uranium to fuel rods while also relinquishing plutonium-laced spent fuel from the still under construction Arak heavy water facility. While this would certainly be good news if true, no offer has yet been made public by any of the parties involved, and it is important to note that Iran’s real offer may not resemble the rumored offer.
A short term goal of negotiations should be to outline early confidence building measures and agreement on the contours of a broader, longer-term agreement. Such an agreement would likely need to include limitations on enrichment levels to no more than 5%, the dismantling of Fordow (or at the least a very tight inspection schedule), limitations on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and the number of enrichment centrifuges commensurate with its realistic civilian nuclear power needs, and submission to full inspections (scheduled and unannounced) from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return Iran will expect significant sanctions relief.
These concessions combined with early confidence building steps such as the relinquishment or conversion of all 20% enriched uranium while the negotiation process on a long-term agreement is ongoing could go a long way toward demonstrating that Iran’s nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes, as the country suggests. These concessions would also, hopefully, reduce tensions between the U.S. and Iran and might allow for improved relations. Even if a deal is reached, however, it would remain imperative to continue inspections to ensure that Iran does not attempt to acquire breakout capability after sanctions are lifted.