As the Iran nuclear negotiations enter their final days before the November 24 deadline for agreement, the issue of enrichment capability is no longer the main stumbling block to agreement which is now the US position on lifting sanctions against Iran. Without a dramatic overhaul of that position, the talks will certainly fail.
Serious negotiations on the issue of enrichment capacity have been going on ever since an agreement between Iran and Russia on sending a large part of Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia to be converted into fuel plates was concluded. That arrangement could reduce Iran's LEU stockpile to zero, thus having the same impact on Iran's capability for "breakout" as the dramatic reduction in Iran's operational centrifuges the Obama administration had been demanding all summer.
The US delegation is still seeking some reduction in Iran's total centrifuge force, but the semiofficial Iranian website irannuc.ir said US negotiators were now proposing a ceiling of 6,000, according to a Los Angeles Times report on Nov. 4. The US delegation, which had originally demanded as few as 1,500 centrifuges, had previously let it be known informally that it would settle for 4,000.
It is hardly credible that the two sides cannot reach agreement on a number somewhere between 6,000 and 9,400.
But the US negotiating stance on sanctions relief, as revealed in public statements and leaks in recent weeks, presents political problems for Iran that make it a nonstarter.
The Obama administration acknowledges that it must provide some incentive for Iran to sign the agreement in the form of upfront sanctions relief. It has informed Iran that the sanctions negotiated with European and Asian countries, which have cut Iranian oil exports sharply since 2012, would be removed promptly under the comprehensive agreement.
The United States would also suspend some unilateral US sanctions, but a number of US unilateral sanctions would not be suspended, and UN Security Council sanctions would remain in place for at least several years. Those positions have elicited strong objections from the Iranian delegation.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will not accept the remaining of even one sanction in the comprehensive nuclear agreement," Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Aragchi declared Oct. 25.
Iranian officials view unilateral US economic sanctions, some of which long predate the accusation of nuclear weapons work, as both a challenge to Iran's status in international politics and an indication of US hostility. Amassing bargaining chips to obtain the lifting of sanctions has been one of the objectives driving Iran's ambitious uranium enrichment program from the beginning.
But the Obama administration, under pressure from Israel and the Congressional majority responsive to Israeli interests, has said publicly that it would agree to suspend sanctions only, rather than remove them, and that only those sanctions that are explicitly linked to the nuclear issue would be affected. Actual removal of sanctions would come at the end of the process only, rather than the beginning.
Under US Iran sanctions laws, the only thing the president can do about sanctions without Congressional approval is to use national security waiver provisions to suspend the sanctions covered by the law for 120 days at a time.
The removal of sanctions imbedded in four United Nations Security Council resolutions, passed between 2006 and 2010, represent a particularly sensitive political issue for Iran. Those sanctions forbid any trade with Iran in nuclear-related materials and technology, freeze the assets of key industries and companies, prevent doing business with Iranian banks that could be linked to the nuclear program, impose an arms embargo on Iran and even forbid Iran from having a ballistic missile program.
The Obama administration proposes to delay the lifting of Security Council sanctions and obtaining Congressional authority to lift unilateral sanctions until the end of the agreement. The objective is said to be to gain additional leverage over Iran's implementation of the agreement. But that argument isn't credible to Iranians, who have legitimate doubts that Congress would cooperate in allowing sanctions to be lifted without a president fighting for it now, as part of an agreement.
One of the aims of putting off the actual termination of some unilateral US sanctions until late in the implementation process, would be to ensure that Iran will "cooperate" with the International Atomic Energy Agency on the "possible military dimensions" (PMD) of its nuclear program - meaning alleged past Iranian work on nuclear weapons.
Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, who has frequent contacts with US officials, said in an email that relaxing some sanctions, including unilateral sanctions, would be "contingent on reaching a 'satisfactory' resolution of the PMD issues." It is generally understood, Vaez wrote, that the process of resolving the PMD issues "will take some time, and that naturally, the P5+1 (six negotiating countries) needs to retain some leverage until the issue is resolved."
But the Obama administration is more concerned about leverage of broader issues in the agreement than they are in getting Iran to confess to nuclear weapons work. And there is no chance that Iran, which has consistently denounced the evidence of its past nuclear weapons work as a fabrication, would make such a confession. So keeping the PMD issue alive for some period would also provide yet another source of leverage on Iran in the implementation of the agreement.
"Even in the case of full cooperation," Vaez told the International Business Times last week, "the decision to close the PMD dossier is purely political and likely [to be] molded by the most influential of the IAEA's Board of Governors."
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano's management of the issue in 2014 has certainly been consistent with that interpretation.
The chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, said in an interview with this writer last June that the IAEA had agreed in the unpublished February 2014 "Framework" on cooperation between Iran and the IAEA on the PMD issue that the agency would close the file on each issue if Iran provided the information needed to clarify it. Amano's spokesperson did not deny Salehi's assertion when queried by IPS (Inter Press Service).
The IAEA had suggested in 2008 that Iran's Exploding Bridgewire (EBW) detonator program may have been part of a nuclear weapons program, and the agency had demanded proof from Iran that it had developed the program for a non-nuclear application. In April, Iran provided multiple forms of evidence to the IAEA that Iran's EBW detonator technology was developed for its oil and gas industries.
But Amano declared in a June 2 press conference that he would reach a conclusion on the EBW issue only "in due course, after a good understanding of the whole picture." In an appearance at Brookings Institution Oct. 31, Amano said the IAEA was still analyzing the information Iran had provided in April - a claim that could hardly be taken seriously.
In response to a question, Amano left the clear impression that completing the process was going to take a long time. "This is not a never-ending process," he said. That comment was more revealing than his estimate that the issue could be resolved in a year or two.
The PMD issue thus appears to be another justification for the United States to avoid dismantling the sanctions regime rather than a genuine reason for proposing that the sanctions relief be delayed.
Perhaps the administration has already planned to go to fallback positions on some or all of its proposals But only a thorough rethinking of the whole negotiating strategy on the issue would avoid an almost certain failure to reach agreement before the time has expired.