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Timelines Dominate Iran Nuclear Talks

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The three key timelines at the center of the negotiations between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program were the subject of a recent panel discussion at the Wilson Center. Jon Wolfsthal of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies spoke about the duration of a hypothetical comprehensive agreement, Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association (ACA) discussed Iran’s “breakout” period, and Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center talked about possible timeframes for sanctions relief.

While there may be flaws in the P5+1’s (US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) decision to make “breakout” their primary focus, it is that timeline, and specifically its uranium enrichment component, that dominates the negotiations and related policy debates. Uranium enrichment capacity is, according to Kimball, the “key problem” in terms of coming to a final agreement, given that more progress seems to have been made between the two parties on limiting the Arak heavy-water reactor’s plutonium production, and on more intensive inspection and monitoring mechanisms. He also discussed the contours of a deal that would allow Iran to begin operating “next generation” centrifuges, which enrich uranium far more efficiently than the older models currently being operated by the Iranians.

Kimball’s suggestion mirrored a new piece in the ACA’s journal by Princeton scholars Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, Hossein Mousavian, and Frank von Hippel. They proposed a two-stage process for modernizing Iran’s enrichment technology and eventually finding a stable consensus on the enrichment issue. In the first stage, to last around five years, Iran could begin to replace its aging “first generation” centrifuges with more advanced “second generation” centrifuges so long as Iran’s overall enrichment capacity remains constant, and it would be able to continue research and development on more modern centrifuge designs so long as it permitted inspectors to verify that those more advanced centrifuges were not being installed. That five year period would also allow Iran and the international community time to work out a more permanent uranium enrichment arrangement, which could take the form of a regional, multi-national uranium enrichment consortium similar to Urenco, the European entity that handles enrichment for Britain and Germany.

As the authors note, Iran is one of only three non-nuclear weapon states (Brazil and Japan are the others) that operate their own enrichment programs, so the global trend seems to be moving in the direction of these multi-national enrichment consortiums. It is unclear if Iran would agree to this kind of framework, but this piece was co-authored by Mousavian, who has ties to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, suggesting that it could become acceptable to the Iranian government.

One major hurdle in the talks remains Iran’s desire, as noted by Kimball, to be able to fully fuel its Bushehr reactors with domestic enriched uranium by 2021, the year when its deal with Russia to supply fuel to Bushehr runs out. Fueling the Bushehr reactors alone would require vastly more enrichment capacity than the P5+1 would be able to accept, and Iran has plans for future reactors that it would presumably want to be able to fuel domestically as well. The P5+1 negotiators, and well-known non-proliferation organizations including ACA, argue that Iran can simply renew its fuel supply deal with Russia and thereby reduce its “need” for enriched uranium substantially. But from Iran’s perspective, domestic enrichment is its only completely reliable source of reactor fuel. Indeed, Russia has historically proven willing to renege on nuclear fuel agreements in the name of its own geopolitical prerogatives. Any final deal that relies on outside suppliers to reduce Iran’s enriched uranium requirements will have to account for Iranian concerns about whether or not those outside suppliers can be trusted. It’s possible that the kind of enrichment consortium described in the ACA piece will satisfy those concerns.

The other timelines in question, the overall duration of a deal and the phasing out of sanctions, spin off of the more fundamental debate over enrichment capacity, and both revolve around issues of trust. Wolfsthal argued that the P5+1 may require a deal that will last at least until Rouhani is out of office, in order to guard against any change in nuclear posture under the next presidential administration. In his discussion of sanctions relief, Litwak pointed to an even more fundamental question of trust: is Iran willing to believe (and, it should be added, can Iran believe) that the United States is prepared to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic and to stop making regime change the paramount goal of its Iran policy? If the answer is “yes,” then Iran may be willing to accept a more gradual, staged removal of sanctions in exchange for specific nuclear goals, which the P5+1 favors. If the answer is “no,” then Iran is likely to demand immediate sanctions relief at levels that may be too much, and too quick for the P5+1 to accept.

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. 

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