Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Negotiations: What Is Holding It Up?

31 Jul, 2014    ·   4586

Ruhee Neog analyses the sticking points for all parties in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog
The six-month interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran expired on 20 July with the negotiating parties failing to reach an understanding on a longer-term comprehensive agreement. This was not a shock ending – there was a growing sense, towards the conclusion of the stipulated time frame of the interim deal, that overarching consensus would not be reached by the deadline. The talks have now been extended by four months, and are due to expire by 20 November 2014 – a year since the negotiations first began.

Sticking Points for the Negotiating Parties
One of the primary concerns that have delayed the conclusion of a comprehensive deal is the question of Iran’s enrichment capacity, on which the negotiators have thus far been unable to reach any kind of consensus. Iran wants to hold on to the 19,000 centrifuges in its possession. It has also repeatedly stressed its need for an enrichment capacity that meets, among others, the requirements for the fuelling of the nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, built by Russia under an Iran-Russia contract. Russia currently supplies the low enrichment uranium (LEU) to fuel the reactor, a job that Iran sees itself taking over once the contract expires in 2021. Significantly, this would require Iran to increase its uranium enrichment capacity, which could be at cross-purposes with the eventual aim of a comprehensive agreement: to curb the possible weaponisation element of the Iranian nuclear programme in perpetuity. The P5+1, on the other hand, seek a reduction where Iran desires an expansion.

As it currently stands, Iran has voiced its opposition to reduce the number of centrifuges in existence, a position that is seen as unacceptable to the P5+1. Continued Iranian maintenance of the Arak heavy water reactor and the uranium enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz as components of the Iranian civilian nuclear programme have also been challenged, and Fordow’s location inside a mountain and therefore fortification against a potential conventional strike has hardened this position. Although there have been some vocal demands for a complete end to Iranian uranium enrichment as an end-goal of the comprehensive agreement, it has also been recognised that this would not be politically realistic.

Iran's stand is that it will not forego its right to enrich uranium for peaceful means as promised to it by the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty). This right, used often and publicly by Iranian statesmen to define their expectations from the P5+1, informs the Iranian approach to the talks and is therefore non-negotiable. In this light, therefore, a lower capacity for enrichment is being sought. It has been argued that this would be a win-win for Iran and the P5+1. First, it would still allow Iran to meet the “practical needs” as recognised in the JPOA of its civilian nuclear programme, such as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), Bushehr, and the four light-water research reactors that Iran has expressed an interest in building. Second, this is expected to extend Iran's “break-out” in the event that it decides to bow out of the agreement, and enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels for a nuclear bomb.

Additionally, Russia may apparently be willing and able to extend its contract to supply fuel to Bushehr post 2021. Also, as Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues, “Iran has no agreement with Russia licensing the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran (AEOI) to make Bushehr fuel, giving Iran access to the intellectual property for the design of the reactor core internals, for the design of the fuel assemblies, and for the chemical and physical specifications of the fuel.” If Russia, given its commercial interests in retaining the contract, is unwilling to hand over fuel supply to Iran, then Iran’s argument for greater enrichment capacity on this basis can be considered invalid.

Since the negotiations began, technical issues were expected to throw a spanner in the works – a misgiving that has since been justified. Recent frustration notwithstanding, this extension provides the necessary space for a stock-taking of where the negotiations stand, what the sticking points are, and how best to move forward in the right diplomatic direction. Also, this extension should not read as failed diplomacy, and take away from the good work done so far and the noteworthy achievements made under the JPOA. Most importantly, Iran and the West have met at the negotiating table for the first time since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani led the last (failed) talks in his former avatar as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. As starting points go, therefore, the deal itself is a diplomatic breakthrough, and in this give and take, it is hoped that the negotiating parties build on past mileage by focusing not so much on what is ideal, but what is achievable.