WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State John Kerry offered guarded optimism Sunday night about the upcoming P5+1 talks in Geneva to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, but even within US policy circles, debate continued Monday as to what the negotiations would entail.
In a speech broadcast from London, Kerry told participants in the AIPAC policy summit that “right now, the window for diplomacy is cracking open,” but he warned that “when we say that Iran must live up to its international responsibilities on its nuclear program, we mean it.”
Kerry said that he believed “firmly that no deal is better than a bad deal,” but did not delve into specifics as to what would constitute a good or bad deal.
Hours after Kerry spoke, a bipartisan group of leading senators released a letter that they had sent to US President Barack Obama over the weekend. The Senate letter revealed tension over the conditions for loosening sanctions on Tehran in exchange for progress toward stopping the country’s nuclear weapons program.
The senators said that while “we support your efforts to explore a diplomatic opening,” they also “believe that the true test of Iranian sincerity is a willingness to match rhetoric with actions.”
Describing the Tuesday meeting in Geneva as “the critical test” of that willingness, the senators went on to say that “Iran’s first confidence-building action should be full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, fulfillment of its responsibilities under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and implementation of all Resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, to include immediate suspension of all enrichment activity.”
The six resolutions passed by the UNSC in recent years not only call on Iran to cease enrichment, but also “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development,” to suspend work on its heavy-water reactors, and – as reiterated in all six UNSC resolutions – to undertake a number of confidence-building measures outlined in an IAEA Board of Governors resolution.
The senators advocated what they described as a “’suspension for suspension’ initial agreement – in which Iran suspends enrichment and the US suspends the implementation of new sanctions.” Rather than suggesting that the US lift already-extant sanctions in exchange for progress, the senators instead offered to “suspend the implementation of the next round of sanctions currently under consideration by the Congress.”
The senators stressed that suspension of current sanctions would only come after Iran “halts and dismantles its nuclear weapons program” in a “real, transparent, and verifiable way we will be prepared to remove existing sanctions.” Even then, they emphasized, the release of sanctions should be “sequenced” rather than across-the-board.
The senators rejected Iranian claims that Tehran has a right to continue enrichment in its own territory, arguing that “countries from Canada, to Mexico and South Africa benefit from peaceful nuclear energy programs, without indigenous enrichment programs.” They argued that a “right to a peaceful nuclear energy program” does not guarantee a “right to enrichment”.
The senators’ letter, which was released to the press Monday, shed light on the distance between the US and Iran’s — and Israel’s — positions leading up to the Geneva talks.
First, the order of relaxing the sanctions that are currently in effect against Iran. The Obama administration has indicated that it would be willing to consider discussing relaxing some sanctions if enrichment is suspended. By highlighting the UNSC resolutions and the IAEA, the senators’ letter puts more conditions on the gradual lifting of sanctions, including the dismantling of the heavy-water plutonium facility being built at Arak. These conditions bring the senators closer to the demand made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during last week’s Bar Ilan II speech, in which he called for Tehran’s nuclear weapons program “be fully and verifiably dismantled.”
In contrast, Iran’s most generous negotiating position has been to simply agree to a freeze in enrichment in exchange for having all of the stringent sanctions placed against Tehran lifted.
Currently, even that arrangement does not appear to be on the table. In his September speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani demanded international “acceptance of and respect for the implementation of the right to enrichment.”
On Sunday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, a member of the negotiating team bound for Geneva was quoted by Iranian PressTV as saying that the “nation’s rights” constituted Iran’s red lines at the negotiation table.
Araqchi confirmed that Iran had a proposal ready, and said that it would be based upon “the same step-by-step approach which was brought up and in general agreed upon” in previous P-5+1 meetings with Russia, China, France, Britain, the US and Germany.
He described the plan as “logical, balanced and realistic” – involving a negotiations phase and an implementation stage. Ultimately, Araqchi said, Iran’s case would be returned for consideration to the IAEA instead of the UNSC.
A second sticky point in negotiations is the fate of the uranium that has already been enriched to weapons grade levels. In the past, negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have hit a deadlock concerning the future of the 20% enriched uranium being produced at the formerly secret Fordo plant.
The senators’ letter did not make any specific recommendations regarding the fate of already enriched uranium held by Iran.
Historically, the United States has called for the plant to be dismantled altogether, and wants Iran to hand over all of its highly enriched uranium. Uranium for civilian energy purposes requires 5% enrichment, whereas weapons-grade uranium is considered to be 20% enriched or greater.
On Sunday, Reuters quoted Araqchi emphasizing on Iranian TV that “of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of [uranium] enrichment, but the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line.”
Israel has repeatedly warned that Iran is close to possessing the amount of enriched uranium necessary to manufacture a nuclear warhead. The presence of the enriched uranium in Iran’s hands coupled with a freeze rather than a disassembly of enrichment facilities is seen by Israel as a pressing threat.
This was the topic that Netanyahu stressed to Obama during their meeting earlier this month, but since then, US policymakers have focused their calls on other aspects of the negotiations