With international talks on Iran’s disputed nuclear weapons program now set to resume, world powers will test whether the country is moderating its policies or merely its rhetoric.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet in New York with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Sept. 26 in the highest-level formal talks between the two nations since before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, joined by their counterparts from five other powers and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. Iran also will participate in nuclear negotiations in Geneva in mid-October.
After meeting one-on-one with Zarif yesterday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Ashton said she was struck by “the energy and determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me” about resolving issues over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says it’s solely for peaceful purposes, while the U.S., Israel and other nations suspect it’s a clandestine effort to develop the capability to make weapons.
President Barack Obama told the United Nations General Assembly today that he was encouraged that Iranian President Hassan Rohani was elected with a mandate to pursue a more moderate course.
“Conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable,” Obama said in New York. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Tempered by Tests
The enthusiastic reception for the Iranian leaders’ campaign to advertise their peaceful intentions, through social and traditional media, should be tempered by tests of whether they’re prepared to make significant concessions in exchange for relief from the economic sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy, according to Gary Samore, who until earlier this year was Obama’s chief adviser on non-proliferation.
“Now that Washington has come this far and achieved a truly painful sanctions regime -- which is obviously working or a charm offensive wouldn’t be taking place -- I don’t think they’re going to throw that away,” Samore, who participated in several rounds of nuclear talks, said in an interview. “All the good words on both sides are positive, but one should not misread that for a solution that’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Iran’s oil exports have dropped by half, to less than 1 million barrels a day since U.S. and EU oil sanctions took effect in July 2012, according to the International Energy Agency in Paris. Inflation has almost doubled in two years to 39 percent last month, official figures show.
Iran’s decades-old atomic program has cost the country an estimated $100 billion, including its investments in nuclear infrastructure as well as lost foreign investments and oil revenue due to sanctions, according to an April report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Since he was elected in June, Rohani has said that Iran won’t develop nuclear weapons, citing a religious edict by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Last week, Khamenei called for “heroic flexibility” in negotiations.
In exchange for relief from sanctions, the U.S. and its European allies will “demand very significant limits on Iran’s nuclear capacity -- meaning numbers of centrifuges, numbers of facilities, stockpiles of uranium -- all the things that give them a theoretical possibility to produce nuclear weapons,” said Samore, who’s now at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy research organization, said in a report that the U.S. “needs to be extraordinarily careful in dealing with Iran.”
“Iran has now spent well over a decade using delaying tactics and negotiations to move towards a nuclear weapons capability,” Cordesman said. “It also has strong reasons to continue. Quite aside from the issue of national prestige, Iran needs nuclear weapons to give its largely obsolete conventional military forces credibility.”
The potential for resistance from hardliners in Iran was underscored when a senior Iranian lawmaker warned Rohani against holding talks with the U.S.
“There’ll be no negotiations with the U.S.,” said Mohammad Kosari, a conservative member of parliament on the legislature’s Security and Foreign Policy Commission, in an interview with the Etemaad newspaper published today. “After the U.S. has returned confiscated assets, the sanctions are removed, and they have apologized for the crimes they have committed against Iran, then we can investigate if we will enter talks with them or not.”
David Albright, a physicist and former UN nuclear weapons inspector, said that one of the first things Iran could do to prove its sincerity would be to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the UN’s atomic watchdog, at a Sept. 27 meeting in Vienna.
“They can start answering the IAEA’s questions about Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons and possible ongoing work,” Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said in an interview.
Parchin, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Tehran, is one site where the IAEA suspects Iran has done high-explosive testing related to making nuclear weapons, and other sites are alleged to have been workshops to make a mock-up of a reentry vehicle for a missile carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran could begin by granting access to those disputed sites, Albright said.
While barring the IAEA, Iran has razed the facilities at Parchin, removed soil and paved part of the area, according to Albright’s group. As a result, the IAEA may be unable to obtain useful information at the site even if Iran relents and lets inspectors visit, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in June.
“Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable us to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities,” Amano said Sept. 16. “The agency therefore cannot conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, said today that a test of whether Iran has a “genuine desire for a diplomatic solution” is if the Islamic Republic is willing to suspend its uranium enrichment and plutonium-related activities.
“Only such a step will allow the necessary time for meaningful discussions,” the organization said on its website. “Iran cannot be allowed to further advance its nuclear program while talks go on, as it has repeatedly done in the past.”
Iran enriches uranium for nuclear power plants at two sites that are monitored by the IAEA to prevent the diversion of uranium to create bomb-grade fuel. Iran also is nearing completion of a research reactor at Arak, which would be a source of plutonium that could be used in a weapon.
The U.S. and Europe consider this week’s meeting of Zarif with foreign ministers of the group known as the P5+1 -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- a chance to get a sense of the Iranians’ seriousness and whether they’re coming to the table with concrete new proposals, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol.
The official tried to temper expectations for the meeting, saying no one should expect that Iran and six nations will settle the decades-long discussions about Tehran’s nuclear program this week.