Two good reads about the Iran negotiations

I hadn’t seen this piece at Arms Control Now last night when I wrote about Iran’s apparent demand for a much higher uranium enrichment capacity than anybody had expected. It’s a look at what Iran actually needs as opposed to what it wants:

Iran currently has very limited needs for enriched uranium fuel for energy production. Today, Iran has one research reactor (the Tehran Research Reactor) that produces medical isotopes and Iran has enough material to fuel that reactor for years to come; Iran also has a light-water power reactor (Bushehr), which uses fuel supplied by Russia under a ten year arrangement that could be renewed; Iran is in talks with Russia to build up to four additional nuclear power reactors, with the first possibly completed in a decade or more at the soonest.

The comprehensive nuclear agreement should recognize that Iran’s nuclear fuel needs may increase in 15 or 20 years. The deal should allow for an appropriate increase of its uranium enrichment capacity once issues relating to experiments with potential military dimensions have been addressed, and when and if Iran actually builds new nuclear power reactors for which it cannot obtain foreign nuclear fuel supplies.

Iran wants enough capacity to immediately be able to enrich enough uranium to meet all its planned fuel needs, but they don’t need that much capacity. Russia is under contract to deliver fuel for any reactor it builds, and while those deals only go 10 years at a time, they can be extended indefinitely. Iran’s concern here is that Russia will at some point either decide not to renew its supply deals or will just renege on them. That’s a fair concern in the abstract, but Russia stands to make a hell of a lot of money supplying the fuel for all these reactors (far more than it will make building those reactors), and Russia isn’t exactly in a position to be turning down money, so there’s very little actual chance that Russia would pull the rug out from under Iran on this issue, at least not in the near (10-20 year) future, which is the kind of timeframe we’re talking about for a comprehensive deal.

The second read is from several days ago, at Lobe Log, by retired French diplomat François Nicoullaud. He looked at the remaining sticking points on the road to a deal, including enrichment (which most observers had seen coming but maybe hadn’t expected as big a gap between the two sides as there seems to be). He’s also not all that enamored with “breakout capacity” as the guiding principle for the P5+1 in these talks, but what really makes the piece worth reading is that he folds in a lot of other issues as well, like the insistence that Iran account for its past (alleged) military activity to the IAEA, the duration of the agreement (i.e., how long Iran needs to abide by limits and inspections before the international community will be willing to trust that their intentions are peaceful), whether or not Iran should be allowed to conduct nuclear-related research and development, and Iran’s ballistic missile program:

The West wants to include them in the negotiations, as a source of worry identified by the UN Security Council, but this has been outright rejected by Iran. Recall that Iran has accepted to negotiate over its nuclear program as a civilian program placed under the aegis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Negotiations over missiles pertain to a different world, the world of defense and disarmament, in which negotiations are by definition collective, save for unilateral measures imposed upon a defeated country. If there is a solution here, it would require a separate, multilateral discussion on the level and distribution of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, with the aim of convincing concerned states to join the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, adopted in 2002 in the Hague.

Ballistic missiles go hand-in-glove with nukes (or at least with WMD in general), at least in my head (I can’t speak for anybody else), which is why the US and EU want to roll them into this deal, but it seems to me that Iran’s argument that they are a completely separate issue is at least as valid as the US/EU position. Demanding that Iran give up its missile program, or to stop development of new missiles, is directly going after its military/defense posture, where demands about their nuclear program are not because Iran, at least officially, has no military nuclear program to speak of. This makes the missile program potentially a lot more sensitive to Iranian hardliners in the Revolutionary Guard Corps and would almost certainly be outside the scope of Rouhani’s authority (which right now seems limited to the nuclear talks and little else). Plus, you know, other countries are allowed to have weapons, too, even if we might prefer they didn’t.

A region-wide effort to get rid of ballistic missiles would mean bringing in at least Israel and Saudi Arabia (and if you really want to get expansive you’d be talking about potentially including Pakistan, India, and Russia as well). Let’s just say I’m skeptical that they would be interested in participating and leave it at that. Better to just let this one go and focus on the nuclear stuff.

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