With the unexpected resignation of chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani from his post this week, Iranian factional politics once again threaten to obstruct recent progress made in Iran’s negotiations with the IAEA. At first glance, Larijani’s replacement by Saeed Jalili–an Ahmadinejad ally and hardliner–does not bode well for Iranian adherence to a workplan it agreed to with the IAEA this past summer. However, strong support voiced for Larijani by main-stream conservatives in Iran’s ruling elite this week (ranging from the principal foreign affairs advisor to Leader Ali Khamenei to 180 conservative MPs) is a good indication of how much Ahmadinejad’s bombastic approach is viewed as eroding Iran’s negotiating posture.
In the end, Ahmadinejad and his political allies may well find themselves even more isolated domestically due to this turn of events. A clear failure at the negotiating table with the IAEA this November will now be clearly owned by them and may spark a domestic political struggle leading to the wresting of Iran’s nuclear and security portfolio from Ahmadinejad’s already wildly unpopular hands.
Where do Things Stand?
U.S.-led efforts to put in place and enforce U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran regarding its nuclear activities and lack of transparency in related areas gathered momentum in the first half of 2007. At the same time, increasingly direct U.S. accusations of Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq were setting the stage for a highly combustible environment framing U.S.-Iran relations for the remainder of the year.
While Iran’s role and interests in Iraq remain salient questions, the potential for convergence with the nuclear issue has diminished slightly in recent months in no small part due to Iranian efforts to neutralize the Bush administration on the nuclear front. Iran’s response has been twofold. First, it has shrugged off accusations regarding its disagreeable activities in Iraq by asserting that such charges are reflective of U.S. efforts to deflect blame for the Iraq conflict. Second, it has embarked on a renewed effort to engage the IAEA and resolve as many outstanding issues as it can in order to remove this source of U.S. leverage.
During the summer of 2007, IAEA Director General El Baradei and representatives of the Iranian government met on several occasions in sessions intended to put to rest longstanding questions regarding the history of Iran’s nuclear program. It is notable that these efforts were criticized by hawks in Washington who viewed them at best as a hopeless continuation of ineffective diplomacy that would continue to be exploited by an Iran bent on building a nuclear bomb, and at worst as a unconscionable effort by the IAEA to undermine U.S. pressure on Iran and provide respite to Tehran.
In the end, the outcome of the talks was a renewed mutual understanding between Iran and the Agency spelling out a tangible path forward that could avoid greater tensions and a third set of Security Council sanctions while satisfying the Agency on key questions.
This understanding required definitive Iranian answers on key questions and spelled out the sequence in which the questions and answers would be exchanged as well as the overall timeline by which the process would be concluded.
Key points of the agreement were:
The agreed-upon sequence of Iran’s responses is tied to a confidence-building, item-by-item resolution of key issues. In each instance the IAEA is to provide Iran with its final list of questions in advance. Some issues were resolved in relatively rapid order even before the negotiations were finalized. For example, on July 12 Tehran approved five new IAEA inspectors in Iran, bringing the total to 219. The Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor was successfully visited by the IAEA on July 30. And on August 7 Iran provided the IAEA information on HEU contamination detected by the Agency at a storage site in Karaj that prompted the Agency to declare the matter closed.
Discussions on other major issues are ongoing with mixed results so far as to their final status before the IAEA Director General’s next report to the Governing Board in November. For example, the safeguards facilities for the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant were discussed in July and August and were to be finalized in September. On August 7 Iran responded to the Agency on the question of plutonium experiments to the satisfaction of the Agency, which has now declared the matter closed. A key sequence of events is to play out after Iran responds to IAEA questions regarding it’s acquisition of P1 and P2 centrifuges by November. Two weeks after it provides those responses, Iran has agreed to answer additional questions regarding highly enriched uranium contamination.
Following another fourteen days, Iran has committed to resolving outstanding questions regarding u-metal casting as well as Polonium 210 extraction. After a third two-week period, Iran is to respond to questions regarding uranium mining at the Ghachin mine. Finally, despite its objections, Iran has subsequently also agreed to examine the reports in the Agency’s possession regarding uranium dioxide conversion (“The Green Salt Project”), high-explosive testing, and the design of missile re-entry vehicles.
The Iran-IAEA workplan holds real promise for restoring international confidence in Tehran’s nuclear activities. If it achieves its stated goals, it can lay the foundation for further meaningful talks and a peaceful resolution of the ongoing nuclear impasse.
Dr. Bahram Rajaee is a senior policy consultant for NIAC and Middle East expert.