This commentary is also simultaneously published in Online Opinion and Foreign Policy Journal.
The expert meeting of P5+1 countries and Iran was held last week in Istanbul following the agreement of their chief nuclear negotiators last month in Moscow to continue their talks at lower level until common grounds for further rounds of high-level talks are created. The expert meeting has reportedly further clarified the positions of both parties on various issues of common concern and is to be followed by the meeting of deputy chief nuclear negotiators on July 24th in the same venue. Recently, a series of official documents outlining Iran’s detailed responses, presented at Moscow talks, to the P5+ 1 proposal, tabled at Baghdad talks, have become publicly available in both some Western and Iranian media outlets which provide new insights into Iran’s thinking on various issues relating to its nuclear program.
While the full text of the P5+1 proposal has not been released, its main elements were earlier reported to include Western demands from Iran to suspend its 20-percent uranium enrichment activities and close its Fordow uranium enrichment center in return for providing ready fuels for Tehran research reactor and lifting, seemingly temporarily, the long-held Western embargo on the sale of civilian aircraft parts to Iran. Apart from presenting Iran’s own responses to the P5+1 proposal, the released documents also divulge more details on the substance of the P5+1 proposal to Iran.
On what regards the rationale behind the Western demand for the closure of Fordow uranium enrichment center, it becomes clear from Iran’s responses to specific quotes from the P5+1 proposal that Iran’s Western interlocutors consider the operation of 20-percent enrichment activities and the fortified nature of the Fordow center as causes for concern. In other words, because the Fordow center hosts Iran’s 20-percent enrichment activities, which are considered by Western powers to be unnecessary and uneconomical in light of their readiness to supply Iran with ready fuel for Tehran research reactor and the fact that it is protected with passive defense arrangements and thus is not easily vulnerable to military attacks by Iran’s adversaries its continued operation poses concern to Western powers and hence is demanded to be closed.
Iran’s responses to the above concern make it clear that it detaches the issue of 20-percent enrichment from the operation of the Fordow center. While offering logical arguments in defense of the continuation of its 20-percent enrichment activities, Iran rejects the idea that the sole purpose of the Fordow center is enriching uranium to 20-percent level by noting that R&D and laboratory activities as well as storing Iran’s LEU stockpile are among the other purposes of the center. Iran also finds it absurd that the Western party is concerned about the protection of the Fordow center, noting that “established international mechanisms for nuclear security highlight the need for strong protection of nuclear facilities”. Iran makes it clear that any rational state would do its best to protect its nuclear facilities from military attacks and thus as a country “facing constant threats, we need a backup facility to safeguard our enrichment activities”. Iran has further questioned the rationale behind Western demands for the closure of the Fordow center arguing that this center is under the same IAEA safeguard measures as Iran’s other nuclear facilities as it is subject to round-the-clock camera surveillance and regular inspections by the IAEA.
It is also evident from Iran’s responses to the P5+1 proposal that it does not consider the offered incentives as reflecting any genuine desire by Western powers to reach a mutually-satisfactory solution to Iran’s nuclear issue. More specifically, Iran declines to treat some offered incentives as real concessions, arguing that the supply of civilian aircraft parts and medical isotopes for cancer patients deal with basic human rights and should not be politicized, thus questioning the morality and humanity of Western embargos in these fields in the first place. Iran also treats the Western party’s declared willingness to cooperate in providing ready fuels for Tehran research reactor as too little and too late, thus devoid of any practical value to it. Iran refers to its own proved capability to manufacture fuel rods and plates for its nuclear reactors as explaining its lack of interest in such offers.
All in all, Iran’s arguments against the P5+1 proposal, as elaborated by its nuclear negotiators at Moscow and more recently at the experts meeting in Istanbul, should not be treated as adamant refusal to engage on its nuclear issue and reach a compromise with the Western powers on at least some elements of its nuclear program. Rather, Iran has argued that the Western powers have not tabled any proposal of practical value and commensurate with the extent and nature of concessions that it has been demanded to make. While the Western powers have demanded that Iran make concrete and specific concessions on its nuclear issue, such as by suspending its 20-percent uranium enrichment activities and transferring its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium abroad, Iran believes it has been offered no meaningful reciprocal concessions framed in tangible and unambiguous terms. Iran’s foremost priority is to normalize its nuclear issue and terminate unilateral and multilateral sanctions against it and has declared its flexibility and willingness on various occasions to consider the suspension of its 20-percent uranium enrichment activities and cooperate with the IAEA in providing further transparency on its present and past nuclear activities should they materialize that goal. It is thus very unlikely that Iran would agree to any core Western demands on its nuclear issue short of genuine reciprocity meeting the substance of its declared priority.