Nuclear Negotiations at a Delicate Stage

Despite domestic hurdles in the current round of U.S.-Iran negotiations on Iranís nuclear capability, the end result will depend on how many centrifuges can sustain nuclear development in Iran without the country being subjected to crippling sanctions

The agreeable weather in Lausanne, Switzerland, may have helped, but an agreement may still elude the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in the current round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear capability. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some Republican Senators, who called into question the ability of U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver on his part of the deal even if an agreement is reached, could share the responsibility for the impasse.

Mr. Netanyahu appeared at the U.S. Congress in response to an invitation extended to him by the Republicans in January without the knowledge of the White House to issue a dire warning. Mr. Netanyahu presented an alarming picture: “This deal will not be a farewell to arms. It will be a farewell to arms control. And the Middle East is criss-crossed by nuclear tripwires. A region, where small skirmishes can trigger big wars would turn into a nuclear tinderbox,” he said.

Taking a cue from Mr. Netanyahu, the Republicans went over the head of the President to send a message to the Iranians, alerting them to the possibility of the Congress rejecting any recommendation from Mr. Obama to lift sanctions. The letter sent by 47 Republicans on March 9, 2015, and addressed to the Iranians, contended that while the President could reach an agreement with Iran, he had no authority to reward them with a relaxation of sanctions.

Sticking points

For Mr. Obama, who refuses to acknowledge that he is handicapped by his loss of the House and the Senate, the unprecedented move by the Republican Party came as nothing less than a shocking challenge. He compared the Republican Senators to the reactionary members of Iran’s government and accused them of joining an unusual coalition with the enemies. Mr. Zarif, called the Republican move a “propaganda ploy”. He also did not mince words about Mr. Netanyahu’s intervention, perhaps helping in his re-election.

The interim deal forged in November 2013, named Joint Plan of Action, which needs to be shaped into binding commitments by July 2015 came after more than 10 years of Iran playing a cat-and-mouse game with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Iranian tactic had always been to express readiness to cooperate fully with the IAEA, secure applause from the gallery and then leave their questions unanswered. Every time the IAEA reported to its Governors on Iran, there were many satisfactory answers, but some unanswered ones, which needed elucidation. The IAEA could neither certify that Iran was not on a nuclear weapons path, nor could it give it a clean chit. Even after the issue went to the UN Security Council, the ambiguity remained. The IAEA continues its investigations to resolve the questions about past activities, even as the political dialogue continues.

After extending the Joint Plan of Action twice, the P5 and Germany, backed by the sanctions, have been engaged in shaping a comprehensive resolution. At the core of the proposed agreement is a set of restrictions on enrichment of uranium beyond the requirements of generating power. Although the UN resolutions ban any kind of enrichment, the agreement envisages minimum enrichment for a specified period. This would entail a sizeable reduction in the estimated 19,000 centrifuges already in operation in Iran. The nature and number of centrifuges, the period for which restrictions would be imposed and the question of one of the Iranian reactors at Arak, which was allegedly producing plutonium, are some of the major points on which agreement is yet to be reached.

Republicans and Obama

For the Americans, the alternative to an agreement is war and that is the reason why Mr. Obama accused the Republicans of rushing to war, as advocated by Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Obama had exercised great restraint in the long negotiations, keeping in mind the objective of ensuring that Iran did not make nuclear weapons.

He did not rule out enrichment of uranium, even though the Security Council had demanded it. As long as Iran did not cross the threshold, a certain amount of enrichment under safeguards would be admissible. Mercifully, even Mr. Netanyahu did not demand zero enrichment.

The possibility of a comprehensive agreement with Iran is particularly objectionable to the Republicans because of reports that Mr. Obama had given an assurance to the authorities in Iran even before he became President that he would be more generous with Iran than former U.S. President George Bush. The promised concession was specifically on the issue of a permissible amount of enrichment even during the period of restrictions. Iran, on its part, has maintained that the limited amount of plutonium produced at some of its reactors cannot be used for weapons without a reprocessing plant and that Iran has no intention to acquire reprocessing capability. Mr. Obama, it appears, is inclined to accept terms that would allow Iran to enrich uranium as long as it kept nuclear weapons out of reach for Iran.

The negotiations have completed 13 rounds after the Joint Plan of Action was approved and indications are that a comprehensive agreement is within reach. The new Republican position has cast a shadow on the current round even though Iran itself has dismissed it as being inconsequential. Iran points out that its leader, Ali Khamenei, has gone to the extent of issuing a fatwa against nuclear weapons, which is the strongest guarantee that Iran has not embarked on the nuclear weapons path.

Separately, discussions have already begun in New York among the permanent members to prepare the ground for removal of UN sanctions if an agreement is reached in Geneva. The sanctions unilaterally imposed by the U.S. and the European Union (EU) in the energy and banking sectors, and which have hurt Iran even more, are also under discussion. These measures are aimed at countering the threat posed by the Republicans to block the lifting of sanctions authorised by the Congress.

Indian angle

In the earlier years in Vienna, Iran had banked on the chorus of support it received from the nonaligned countries for its right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But when it got the sense that the nonaligned support was a double-edged weapon, it found that direct negotiations with the P5 and Germany could be more beneficial. For its part, India was always apprehensive about an Iranian bomb. On one occasion, Iran issued a démarche in Delhi when the Indian delegation in Vienna refused to endorse a set of amendments to the IAEA resolution, which went beyond the Indian position. Our vote in favour of referring the entire matter to the Security Council angered the Iranians even more as it was perceived to be under American pressure.

India would naturally be relieved if there is an agreement, which will prevent war on the one hand and the emergence of a nuclear weapon power in its neighbourhood on the other.

It is still touch and go in the Lausanne negotiations. An altogether new element is the way the Republicans and Mr. Obama are appealing directly to the Iranians. “This moment may not come again soon,” Mr. Obama said in his message to the people of Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. “I believe that our nations have a historic opportunity to resolve this issue peacefully — an opportunity we should not miss.” The end result will depend on how many centrifuges can sustain the development of nuclear technology in Iran without being subjected to crippling sanctions. Unless that magic figure emanates soon, the spring in Lausanne may well end without a flowering of peace.

(T.P. Sreenivasan was the Governor for India of the IAEA from 2001 to 2004.)