Has the US conceded defeat and

accepted Iran’s right to uranium enrichment?


The prospects for a nuclear deal between the US and Iran are more promising than they have ever been.  If one does come to fruition, the basis of the deal will be US acceptance of Iran’s right to uranium enrichment on its own soil under international safeguards in exchange for greater transparency by Iran about its nuclear activities.  In other words, the settlement will essentially be on Iran’s terms.



Iran has been willing to deal for past decade


President Obama has been pretending to the world that the possibility of a deal has arisen because of the economic sanctions being applied to Iran, sanctions enacted by the US Congress at the behest of the Israel lobby in the US.  According to the White House website, he told Prime Minister Netanyahu on 30 September 2013 that “because of the extraordinary sanctions that we have been able to put in place over the last several years, the Iranians are now prepared, it appears, to negotiate” [1].


In reality, Iran has been prepared to negotiate and do a deal along these lines at any time during the past decade, under Presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad as well as Rouhani.  As President Khatami himself wrote in the Guardian on 23 September 2013:


“The opportunity to diplomatically resolve differences between Iran and the west, including the impasse over the nuclear issue, presented itself many years ago during my presidency. That opportunity was missed, for reasons that are now public knowledge.” [2]


The reasons were the unwillingness of the US to accept that Iran had a right to uranium enrichment in its own soil like every other party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).



Negotiations with EU3


Back in 2005, when Rouhani was head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, protracted negotiations took place between Iran and the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany).  During those negotiations, to be precise on 23 March 2005, Javad Zarif (who is now Iranian foreign minister and in charge of nuclear negotiations) presented proposals [3] to EU3 representatives, involving the continuation of uranium enrichment in Iran but with transparency measures that went far beyond the requirements of Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA.


In these proposals, Iran went out of its way to address international concerns that its enrichment capability might be used for military purposes.  Nevertheless, the EU3 refused to consider them even as a basis for negotiation -  because the US insisted that Iran must not have enrichment on its own soil, and the EU3 acquiesced.


Seyed Hossein Mousavian was the spokesman for the Iranian nuclear negotiating team at the time: in his book The Iranian Nuclear Crisis, he recalls John Sawers, then head of the British negotiating team and now head of MI6, telling him: “Washington would never tolerate the operation of even one centrifuge in Iran” (p173).


Jack Straw was intimately involved in the 2005 negotiations as Foreign Secretary.  He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 3 August 2013 that he was convinced that “had it not been for major problems within the US administration under President Bush, we could have actually settled the whole Iran nuclear dossier back in 2005”.  In other words, the blockage to a settlement in 2005 lay in Washington not Tehran.



Abysmal failure by US


Over the past decade, in an attempt to force Iran to cease enrichment, the US has expended an enormous amount of political capital, dragooning the world into applying political and economic pressure on Iran.  But this effort has failed abysmally: a decade ago there were no centrifuges enriching uranium in Iran; today, according to the latest IAEA report [4], nearly 20,000 centrifuges are installed (though not all of them are in operation).  Now, it appears that the US is about to concede defeat and accept that Iran will continue enriching.


Certainly, in President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly on 24 September 2013 [5], there was no suggestion that a deal acceptable to the US would require Iran to cease enrichment and no demand for “concessions” by Iran.  He merely said that if negotiations were “to succeed conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable”.


Like his two predecessors, President Rouhani has stated over and over again that Iran will not give up its right to enrichment.  So Obama must know that there is no possibility that Iran will accept a deal that excludes enrichment.  And he would be very foolish indeed to enter into a process of negotiation with Iran – and express hopes for its success – while being unprepared to meet Iran’s bottom line.



Transparent and verifiable actions


As for Iran matching conciliatory words “by actions that are transparent and verifiable”, it will have no difficulty doing that.  Such an assertion will come as a surprise to readers who rely for their information on mainstream media, which over the years have constantly given the impression that Iran regularly fails to give the IAEA access to its nuclear sites and to give the IAEA vital information about its nuclear activities.


So what is the current position, which presumably would have to be improved upon for the US to do a deal?  The basic facts are that Iran has declared to the IAEA 17 nuclear facilities (and 9 other locations where nuclear material is customarily used).  All of them are open to IAEA inspection in accordance with Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA and all of them are operating according to the relevant design specifications provided to the IAEA.  Most important of all, the IAEA has never detected any diversion of nuclear material from these nuclear facilities for possible military use elsewhere.


(Iran has not granted the IAEA’s request for access to the Parchin military site, but it is not breaking any agreement with the IAEA by refusing to do so – Parchin isn’t a nuclear site declared to the IAEA.)



Additional transparency measures


So, what additional transparency measures might Iran offer in order to secure a deal with the US?  The Iranian proposals of 23 March 2005 mentioned above gives some idea of what might be possible today.  They included:


(a)  Continuous onsite presence of IAEA inspectors at Iran’s conversion and enrichment facilities


(b)  Measures to greatly reduce the possibility that Iran could produce either high enriched uranium or plutonium, the fissile material for nuclear weapons:



(c)  Continued application of the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA and of the updated Subsidiary Arrangements to its safeguards agreement (see Annex below)


(d)  Limits on the level of enrichment and on the volume of enriched uranium to be produced.



Matters for negotiation


Currently, Iran has two enrichment plants, at Natanz and Fordow, the one at Natanz being much the larger.  The one at Fordow is underground and less vulnerable to attack from the air.  It was built as insurance against the Natanz plant being bombed by the US and/or Israel as they have been threatening to do for years.


Iran is enriching uranium up to 5%, which is appropriate for fuelling nuclear power reactors for generating electricity, and up to 20% to provide fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which is used to produce medical isotopes.  It began enriching to 20% in 2010, after failing to obtain fuel from abroad.


It is generally believed that Iran now has enough 20% enriched uranium to manufacture fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor for many years.  Most likely, Iran has built up this stockpile to act as a bargaining chip in negotiations.


This 20% stockpile gives Iran the capability of producing high enriched uranium for a bomb in a relatively short time, if it decided to do so.  The US will want to be able to boast that any deal done with Iran has increased this time dramatically (from months to years, say).  The US will therefore seek to reduce or eliminate this stockpile in the upcoming negotiations – by offering sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for ceasing enrichment to 20% and allowing some or all of its existing stockpile to be shipped to a third country for storage.


It has also been suggested that Iran may agree to close its Fordow enrichment plant.  That would require a credible guarantee by the US that the Natanz plant would not be attacked by the US itself or by Israel.



Obama knows Iran not building a bomb


In the recent past, President Obama has regularly given the impression that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb and that it is in reach of success.  But it would be an act of madness for him to enter into negotiations with Iran, negotiations that will most likely end up with his acceptance that Iran will continue to have uranium enrichment facilities, if he had even a smidgen of suspicion that Iran is attempting to build nuclear weapons using enriched uranium.  It would be politically disastrous for him if evidence emerged to the contrary and showed that he had been deceived by the Iranian president.


So, it is certain that Obama does not really suspect that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.  This is hardly surprising since his intelligence services have said as much since 2007.  The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” [7].  It added: “We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007…”  Year after year since then, the US Director of National Intelligence has reported to the US Congress his assessment that Iran has not decided to make a nuclear weapon.


After his telephone conversation with President Rouhani on 27 September 2013, President Obama made a statement which included the following:


“Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. …


“I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution.  Iran’s Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.  President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.  I have made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations.  So the test will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.


“Resolving this issue, obviously, could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran -- one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.  It would also help facilitate a better relationship between Iran and the international community, as well as others in the region -- one that would help the Iranian people fulfill their extraordinary potential, but also help us to address other concerns that could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.” [8]


Would Obama have drawn attention to the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons if he didn’t take it seriously?  Would he have mentioned President Rouhani’s remark that “the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon” if he didn’t think it was credible?  Would he have decided to enter into negotiations with Rouhani if he suspected that Rouhani was lying about this?  The answer to all three of those questions is No:  Obama does not believe that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.


And neither does Sergey Lavrov: here’s what he to say about the issue in an interview with RT on 8 October 2013:


“As for the statements regarding the Iranians playing another game and trying to dupe people, I haven't seen any confirmation by any intelligence – be it Russian, be it European, be it the United States, be it Mossad, which would categorically say that the Iranian leadership has taken a political decision to have a military nuclear program. No intelligence agency on earth was able so far to make this conclusion. And we spoke to our American colleagues just recently. They agreed that Iran hasn't taken a political decision to go military in its nuclear program and therefore we all must avoid statements, which would just antagonize the parties to these negotiations and concentrate on a chance which we certainly have now.” [9]



Regime change disavowed


President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly contained one very significant remark in relation to Iran, namely:


“We are not seeking regime change …”


This may well be the first time since the Islamic revolution that a US president has made a remark to this effect.   Certainly, Obama’s predecessor never said it.  On the contrary, he gave the impression that he was, at the very least, keeping open the option of regime change and dismantling the Islamic system of government in Iran.


How else do you explain President Bush’s reaction to the good news from his intelligence services in November 2007 that Iran hadn’t had an active nuclear weapons programme since 2003?  One would have expected that the President, who claimed to be dedicated to preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, would have been delighted to receive intelligence that suggested that Iran had abandoned an active nuclear weapons programme within a few years of his entering the White House.  But, as he explained in his memoir Decision Points (pp418–9, Kindle Edition), instead of being pleased at this good news, he was “angry”.


He was angry because, with the publication of the NIE, international pressure on Iran was relieved and “momentum for new sanctions faded among the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese”.  But:


“The NIE didn’t just undermine diplomacy.  It also tied my hands on the military side. There were many reasons I was concerned about undertaking a military strike on Iran … . But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”


Nevertheless, he remained committed to “dealing with Iran”, he said.  He didn’t explain what he meant by this but he clearly meant something over and above preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.



A real break?


Does Obama’s disavowal of “regime change” represent a real break with the Bush era in respect of Iran?  Maybe so.  But he has not yet disavowed the threat or use of force against Iran, nor the continued interference in its internal affairs.  And he is still pressuring states around the world to apply ferocious economic sanctions to Iran, sanctions enacted by the US Congress on the false premise that Iran has a military nuclear programme – sanctions which cannot be lifted entirely without the consent of the US Congress, which may not be forthcoming.


In these circumstances, Iran has reason to be sceptical about whether a nuclear deal with the US is possible, which preserves its rights under the NPT, let alone a comprehensive rapprochement of the kind that President Nixon brought about with the People’s Republic of China in 1972.


Remember that over 30 years ago the US pledged that “it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs” [10]. That was in the Algiers Accords agreed between US and Iran in February 1980, which led to the release of the US embassy hostages.  The US has honoured that more in the breach than in the observance in the following 30 years.



Annex  On the Additional Protocol & Subsidiary Arrangements


The level of access that Iran grants to the IAEA today is inferior to that which was in operation in 2003-5 and so is the level of reporting to the IAEA.  In 2003, Iran voluntarily upgraded its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, adding two new elements that the IAEA developed in the 1990s and invited states to adopt.  There was no compulsion on states to adopt them and Iran didn’t do so until 2003.


The first element – referred to as new Subsidiary Arrangements – involved enhanced reporting so that, for example, states had to inform the IAEA of new nuclear facilities as soon as a decision to construct was taken, instead of 180 days prior to introducing nuclear fuel into them.


The second – referred to as an Additional Protocol – involved expanded rights of access for the IAEA to information and sites including undeclared sites.  Adopting this protocol is a voluntary matter – in 2011, 69 of the 178 states with safeguards agreements in force with the IAEA hadn’t done so [11].


After Iran’s nuclear file was referred to the Security Council, it reverted to the original Subsidiary Arrangements and ceased to apply the Additional Protocol. 


It is certain that Iran would reinstate these in any nuclear deal with the US (and that the US would insist that they be reinstated).



David Morrison

10 October 2013



[1]  www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/09/30/remarks-president-obama-and-prime-minister-netanyahu-israel-after-bilate

[2]  www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/23/iran-west-not-turn-back-diplomacy

[3]  www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/Iran_Proposal_Mar232005.pdf

[4]  www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2013/gov2013-40.pdf

[5] www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/09/24/remarks-president-obama-address-united-nations-general-assembly

[6]  www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iran/2005/iran-050918-irna02.htm

[7]  www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/20071203_release.pdf

[8]  www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/09/27/statement-president

[9]  rt.com/politics/official-word/iran-cooperation-interview-lavrov-904/

[10]  www.parstimes.com/history/algiers_accords.pdf

[11]  www.iaea.org/safeguards/es/es2011.html