Iran Watch: Fordoomed?

Iran Watch: Fordoomed?

Last week, I explained how upcoming nuclear talks could get bogged down in disagreement if Western powers demand that Iran, as a confidence-building measure, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent (which is steps away from weapons-grade material) and ship existing stockpiles of the higher grade uranium out of the country. 

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the United States and its European allies will indeed open negotiations with this demand, along with a call for Iran to shutter a nuclear facility burrowed under a mountain:

The hard-line approach would require the country’s military leadership to give up the Fordo enrichment plant outside the holy city of Qum, and with it a huge investment in the one facility that is most hardened against airstrikes….

“We have no idea how the Iranians will react,” one senior administration official said. “We probably won’t know after the first meeting.”

Indeed, with negotiations set to begin this Saturday in Istanbul, the Iranians are already reacting. Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, called the demands outlined in the Times article “irrational.”

But Abbasi also struck a note of compromise (or, at the very least, flexibility) — suggesting that Iran might consider returning uranium enrichment to the lower levels required for power generation once it had amassed enough 20 percent material to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment and other research.

Iran meter: The Times report hasn’t just provoked a strong reaction in Iran. In the United States, former CIA officer Paul Pillar is dismayed by America’s reported negotiating position — particularly the part about dismantling the Fordo nuclear facility.

“The Western message to Tehran seems pretty clear: we might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we, or the Israelis, later decide to bomb it,” he writes. “Not the sort of formula that inspires trust among Iranian leaders and gives them much incentive to move toward an agreement.”

Here at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt homes in on the same demand, and is equally concerned that the United States is formulating fatally flawed opening bids. “It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for [the Iranians] to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it,” he notes.

If Pillar and Walt are right, is there any reason for optimism about the upcoming talks? In fact, there are hints that while the Fordo demand may be a non-starter, uranium enrichment could offer more fertile ground for negotiations — and that both sides recognize this reality. Take this passage from the Times article: 

While opening bids in international negotiations are often designed to set a high bar, as a political matter American and European officials say they cannot imagine agreeing to any outcome that leaves Iran with a stockpile of fuel, enriched to 20 percent purity, that could be converted to bomb grade in a matter of months.

Or this report today from the Associated Press on the buzz in Iran:

What could get traction — suggested the hardline newspaper Kayhan — is a so-called “enrichment level stabilization.” That means halting the 20 percent enrichment, the highest level acknowledged by Iran, and continuing with lower levels of about 3.5 percent needed for ordinary reactors….

Mehdi Sanaei, a moderate lawmaker, said a possible bargaining position could be an agreement to temporarily stop 20 percent enrichment in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions.

In other words, there’s still hope for a diplomatic breakthrough, though it’s difficult to stay optimistic when these reports mingle with the news that the United States is dispatching a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.