Low-grade enriched uranium that has been converted from gaseous form to an oxide powder is more difficult to further enrich for possible use in a nuclear weapon. Iran agreed to carry out this conversion during the interim period, but has so far failed to do so. Instead, Iran’s supplies of easily re-enriched uranium have grown by about one metric ton since February.
According to International Atomic Energy Agency reports, it wasn’t until May that Iran finally commissioned a facility that would convert those growing stockpiles to oxide. The facility had not become operational since then, and reports that it is functioning now, during the last week of negotiations, are as yet unconfirmed.
The possibility that oxide conversion is finally beginning does not mean that Iran is moving significantly closer to bridging the gaps between its own and Western positions. In fact, in light of reports that the Iranian oil industry has been consistently exporting in excess of the maximum quantities set by the interim agreement, this change may not even bring Iran into compliance with the terms of that deal. In theory, such non-compliance might prompt Western powers to walk away from the talks, but more likely, the appearance of any progress whatsoever will make an extension more likely, as the US does not want to take responsibility for torpedoing burgeoning diplomacy.
NEGOTIATIONS’ STICKING POINTS
With an extension very likely, all eyes are upon the persistent gaps between Iranian and Western positions, which do not have to be resolved this week but will have to be resolved within the following six months. The AP on Tuesday printed a simple synopsis of the three main sticking points.
Firstly, regardless of what Iran does with its current enriched uranium stockpiles, there must be agreement about the enrichment capacity that Iran will be able to maintain in the future. So far there has been none, with Western powers making it clear that their current capabilities provide too short a nuclear breakout period, while Iran demands that it be allowed to dramatically expand its operations.
Secondly, the facilities at Fordo and Arak remain points of contention. The former is well-shielded from aerial attack, and the US demands that it be completely isolated from the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has only offered proposals that repurpose it slightly but keep it closely related to that program. Meanwhile, the Arak heavy water facility may provide Iran with a plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon, and Iran has refused to reconfigure the installation to make this outcome significantly less likely.
Finally, there has been no consensus on the length of the agreement. Iran insists on being treated like any other signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after a period of as little as three years of apparent compliance with any agreement. The United States insists on a minimum of10 years before Iran is afforded lesser scrutiny.
Emphasizing the fact that these sticking points remain firmly in place, the essential Iranian positions were reiterated in a statement issued by the Iranian parliament on Wednesday. It rejected the notion of compromise on any of the above sticking points, insisting upon Ayatollah Khamenei’s demand for an enrichment capacity 19 times greater than what Iran currently has, declaring that Fordow will continue being used for enrichment, and affirming that Iran expects to be treated the same as nuclear nations whose programs have never been under international scrutiny.
Meanwhile, in the United States, critics of the Obama administration are continuing to exert pressure upon him to take up a tougher stance on negotiations. Twenty-eight Republican Senators signed a letter addressing the issue of an aspect of potential nuclear weapons development that has been ignored amidst the focus on enrichment capacity.
The letter expressed concern that Iran has been using this opportunity to vigorously pursue the advancement of its missile systems and that it may now be on the verge of possessing intercontinental ballistic missiles. As such, the letter ends by saying, “We believe the administration should not conclude any nuclear accord with Tehran without addressing the threat that Iranian ballistic missiles could pose to our nation.”
But Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote on Tuesday that despite how many letters and statements have been issued on the Iran nuclear issue, most of them fall short and fail to lead to action that would better confront the threat perceived by critics of Obama’s approach. To correct this, Rubin says that Democrats must allow Congress to vote on additional sanctions, and the whole of Congress must make it clear that military action is on the table, address Iran’s support for terror as part of the nuclear deal, and insist upon the dismantling of nuclear infrastructure in order to virtually eliminate the possibility of Iran cheating on the deal.
Clearly, conservative voices in the United States want a solid US victory at negotiations, if they want a deal at all. And clearly the Obama administration wants a deal enough that it is willing to negotiate in ways that upset critics and skeptics within the US government. But what is often missing from Western media are the attitudes coming out of Asian circles, particularly Russia and China, both of which are also party to the nuclear talks.
An article at Al-Jazeera suggests that while Russia and China have been supportive of Iranian positions, they are not likely to push for the successful completion of the talks, since they stand to benefit from the lack of a final deal. Entities from these and other countries have previously benefited from schemes to help Iran circumvent US-led sanctions, and the continuation of these schemes could make Iran more dependent on Asian countries and US rivals in the event that no nuclear compromise can be reached.