Iran’s Nuclear Programme: Is Rouhani in a Win-Win Situation?

01 Oct, 2013    ·   4132

Col Rajeev Agarwal outlines the possible outcomes of Iranian nuclear negotiations

How much is Iran ready to compromise in nuclear negotiations? Could it entail giving up its nuclear enrichment programme? Would the US and the P5+1 be willing to accept Iran’s stance on its peaceful nuclear programme and the obvious lead up to easing of economic sanctions? Given the domestic constituencies in the US and Iran, how much can each party afford to offer? Finally, the most crucial question, if the talks fail again, where would it leave both?

Rouhani rode over the presidential elections with his pledges to try to ease the sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme and seek greater engagement with Western powers. The US too welcomed Rouhani’s election and said it was ‘ready to engage directly’ with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme. President Obama continued the buildup when he said at the UN General Assembly session on 24 September that “America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully, although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. We are not seeking regime change and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” This was music to Iranian ears and President Rouhani too didn’t disappoint when he said that he was prepared to engage in ‘time-bound and results-oriented’ talks on his country's nuclear programme. He called the ‘so-called Iranian threat’ as imaginary and added that Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world, and that nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defence doctrine. He has repeatedly said that he has the blessings of the Supreme Leader in resolving the nuclear issue.

Potential Roadblocks
Despite this optimism, there are already signs of cracks developing. The much touted direct interaction and hand shake between Obama and Rouhani has not take place, with the Iranians reportedly calling it ‘too complicated’ right now. President Rouhani on his return to Tehran was received with condemnation and brick bats from the hardliners. Israel, one of the (undeclared) major parties in the issue have cautioned and warned the US against falling for hollow talk from Iran. While the Iranian foreign minister declared Iran’s ‘right to uranium enrichment’ non-negotiable, the US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said that the ‘right to nuclear energy’ does not imply the right to enrich uranium. The Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia are very skeptical and have become wary of Obama, with some Saudi analysts even saying that Obama is ‘not a reliable ally and that he’s bending to the Syrians and Iranians’. On the US side, Obama will find it very hard to convince the Congress to reduce or lift economic sanctions as a quid pro for the talks to progress.

Besides politics, there are other issues related to the nuclear programme. The IAEA report of August 2013 reports that Iran has added about 1,000 more advanced centrifuges at Natanz and now has 372 kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium, although of this only 185 Kg is UF6 (well below the ‘red line’ of 240 kg). The balance has been converted to fuel rods. Also, Iran is enriching 10-15 kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium every month. The heavy water plant at Arak too is going to be commissioned soon, which would add to Iran’s enrichment capability.

While the P5+1 and Iran get ready for talks in October, doubts remain on the horizon. Iran may permit greater inspections by the IAEA, but will it permit sudden and unannounced inspections in future once the inspectors have been satisfied of the peaceful nature of the nuclear programme? While the known enrichment sites may be under monitoring, what about small labs building better know-how on future nuclear technology? Is it possible to completely erase Iran’s capability and knowledge to enrich and build bombs just through IAEA monitoring? In nuclear technology, once a particular level of expertise and enriched stocks are reached, the ability to ‘breakout’ is simple and quick enough.

All these lead to the conclusion that even if Iran permits extra monitoring and inspections, reduces its enrichment levels (without giving up the programme itself) and signs the additional protocol, it would still retain the ability to bounce back if required. If the talks fail, Rouhani could well say that he tried his best. Also, if there is indeed a resolution, it would put Israel in a tight corner and put additional pressure to come clear on its nuclear programme, especially when seen in the context of the Syrian chemical weapons programme. It would thus seem that Iran and Rouhani have indeed played their cards right and could emerge victorious either way.