On nuclear issue, will Iran offer something new?

Walter Pincus
Reporter October 7, 2013

Next week we may get the first hint from Geneva on whether Iran is serious about its pledge to offer a verifiable and transparent program to assure the world that its nuclear program is peaceful.

Tehran will link its proposal to a demand for relief from U.S.-led economic sanctions, which have hurt Iran’s economy and helped bring moderate-speaking President Hassan Rouhani’s government to power and its foreign minister to the table.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

So Geneva will also give the so-called P5+1 countries (the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China and Germany) a chance to make clear how sanctions will be withdrawn in response to Iran’s actions.

The negotiators are not starting with a blank slate.

At the last P5+1 meeting with Iran, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April, the allies offered a proposal with steps for Iran to take relative to its nuclear program and what they would do about sanctions in return.


A handout picture released by the official website of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shows him, left, delivering a speech during a visit to the Military College of Tehran on October 5, 2013. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

At a news conference Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Bali, Indonesia, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, “I don’t believe that, as of yet, Iran has fully responded to that particular proposal. So I think we’re waiting for the fullness of the Iranian difference in their approach now.”

Lavrov added, “Iran probably wants more clarity, more specific steps to be spelled out on the road to the result which we all want to achieve.”

That’s diplomatic speak that means both sides should lay out a detailed plan so we can develop confidence that we all are making progress.

Let’s take a closer look at some of what the P5+1 Almaty proposal said Iran must do:

●Suspend all enrichment of uranium above 5 percent within Iran. This eased an old provision calling for immediate suspension of all enrichment in Iran.

●Suspend all enrichment at the Fordow underground facility and increase monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency there, including cameras with real-time encrypted connectivity to agency headquarters in Vienna.

●Transfer all collected uranium ore, including ore enriched to 5 percent, to facilities at Natanz or Esfahan and put under IAEA safeguards.

●Remove from the Fordow facility any uranium enriched above 5 percent. Take an unspecified amount of uranium enriched to 20 percent and retain it as working stock for the Tehran Research Reactor, which is used for medical purposes.

Now some key proposed ally responses in return:

●No new proliferation-related sanctions. Congress has drafted harsher sanctions and is debating whether they should be passed before the Geneva meeting. On Thursday, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state, asked Congress to wait until the Geneva position is clear.

●Lifting sanctions that have prohibited Iran from the direct or indirect sale or purchase of gold or precious metals.

●Suspend the prohibition of the import and export of petrochemical products, along with the financing and insurance of such sales.

When the Geneva meeting opens Oct. 15, “the proposal we put on the table in Almaty stays on the table and we will not offer anything new in the first instance,” Sherman told senators Thursday.

“The onus is on Iran to put their response on the table to us. . . . We will not put new ideas on the table until we hear from Iran,” she added.

Last week, Rouhani said Iran had a “precise plan” to present in Geneva.

He linked that to a key issue in the negotiations — Iran’s enrichment of uranium, the process by which uranium can be used as fuel in electric power or research reactors, but which, if carried further, can produce material for nuclear weapons.

President Obama, in his U.N. speech, referred to “the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations,” a reference to Tehran as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the object of U.N. resolutions.

Sherman told the Senate panel that the treaty “does not speak about the right of enrichment at all. . . . It simply says that you have a right to research and development.” As a result, some countries see that as an inherent right to enrich, but the United States does not, Sherman said.

One U.N. resolution calls upon Tehran to suspend enrichment but does not suspend Iran’s right to enrichment.

As Rouhani put it last week, “Iran’s enrichment right is not negotiable.” But, he added, “We must enter into talks to see what would the other side propose to us about the details.”

Sherman told the senators that Rouhani’s added phrase appeared to qualify his statement on enrichment.

“So, you know,” she said, “a negotiation begins with everybody having their maximalist position, and we have ours, too, which is they have to meet all of their obligations under the NPT and the U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

Geneva may be the start of something new or the replay of the past. But time is running out.

Said Sherman, “In a relatively short period of time we will see if there is anything real here.”

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