Full Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Iran's Main Red Line

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Interview with Hassan Beheshtipour 

Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China – plus Germany agreed on the extension of nuclear talks until November 24 with a view to achieving a permanent deal that would end the decade-old dispute over Iran’s nuclear energy program. To discuss recent developments regarding Iran and the P5+1 nuclear talks Etemaad Newspaper conducted an exclusive interview with Hassan Beheshtipour, expert on nuclear issues. 

Q: The US President Barack Obama has recently noted that chance for reaching a comprehensive deal with Iran over its nuclear energy program are less than 50 percent. Do you believe that this is an optimistic or pessimistic position?

A: In view of very fundamental differences that remain between the two negotiating sides, I believe that his assessment of nuclear talks is totally realistic and by no means can be called pessimistic. At present, there are major differences between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 group of countries over the most important issues discussed by the two sides during nuclear talks. Those issues include nuclear capacity and capability of Iran and the length of time considered for achieving a comprehensive agreement with Iran. In fact, if the United States is really seeking to reach a final conclusion through these talks, it should change its approach, which is currently based on a combination of putting pressure on Iran while, at the same time, continuing negotiations with the Islamic Republic. At present, Washington should move toward cooperation and pave the way for further progress of the negotiations. The United States should replace this policy for the one that is focused on mounting pressure on Iran using unilateral sanctions as a leverage, which is currently the main strategy that the United States has been following with regard to Iran.

Q: It seems that nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group have practically turned into an opportunity for bilateral negotiations between the Iranian and the American delegations. Does this mean that European countries are being marginalized during the talks, or that their differences with Iran have decreased?

A: The European countries have not been marginalized and Iran is going on with its negotiations with these countries. The only difference that has been seen in the past few weeks has been bilateral negotiations both between Iran and the United States, and between Iran and individual member states of the P5+1 group, which have taken place on the sidelines of the main course of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group as a whole. The bilateral talks aim to bolster the overall process of nuclear negotiations and boost their speed. Another point which should be taken into account here is that since the beginning of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group, which started in July 2008 and have continued up to the present time, the American delegation has been always the most important side to Iran in the negotiations. Of course, this should not be taken to mean that European countries have been marginalized, but it is true that we have had the most problems with the Americans. Therefore, holding bilateral negotiations with the American side within framework of the nuclear negotiations is by no means out of the ordinary. The member states of the P5+1 group have been always trying to show that they are united in their approach to Iran, but in practice, there are differences among them. For example, there are profound differences between Russia and the United States while, on the other hand, the United States is at loggerheads with certain European countries like France over some issues related to Iran's nuclear energy program.

Despite this fact, however, all these countries have voted positive for seven sanctions resolutions adopted against Iran by the United Nations Security Council, which is indicative of the existence of some kind of convergence among them on this issue.

Q: Both Iran and the P5+1 group should reduce their expectations in order to pave the way for achieving a comprehensive deal over Iran's nuclear energy program. What is Iran's red line in these negotiations? Is it possible for Iran to compromise on its red line?

A: Since the beginning of the negotiations up to the present time, Iran has only stuck to a single red line, which has been reflected in the Islamic Republic’s insistence on having full nuclear fuel cycle in the country. The full nuclear fuel cycle means that uranium enrichment is an indispensable part of Iran's nuclear activities today and will remain so in the future. Having the nuclear fuel cycle means that the country would have all stages of nuclear fuel production from extraction of uranium ore all the way to the production of the “yellow cake” followed by production of UF6 after which the UF6 would be fed into fuel rods that will be subsequently used as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor or Bushehr nuclear power plant. Of course, the level at which enrichment takes place and its volume are open to negotiation.

Q: And what is the most important demand of the P5+1 group?

A: Preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons has been announced as the red line for the member states of the P5+1 group. Other issues, which have been mentioned by the P5+1 group as bones of contention with Iran are, in fact, bargaining chips used to extract more concessions from Iran. In the meantime, I should emphasize that the West should finally give up its erroneous expectation that by escalating sanctions against Iran, it will be able to make the Islamic Republic give more concessions. There are countless technical solutions for all technical issues that are said to have caused challenges between the two sides throughout the nuclear negotiations.

Q: The period of the comprehensive agreement has been also a major bone of contention between Iran and the United States. One side talks about a one-digit number while the other side wants that period to be covered by a two-digit number. How such gaps between the two sides can be possibly bridged?

A: One of the main differences between Iran and the member states of the P5+1 group is whether the time for legal and political validity of this agreement between Iran and the opposite parties should be five years or ten years. This means that they are discordant as to the time during which the agreement would be valid. When we talk about this period of time, it does not mean that sanctions imposed against Iran will be lifted in a matter of five years, but it is quite possible that those sanctions may be lifted at the end of the first year following the conclusion of the agreement according to the contents of negotiations between the two sides. This period of time, in fact, denotes the time during which Iran's nuclear energy program will be under supervisory mechanisms agreed by both sides. Therefore, it is quite natural that Iran is willing for that period to be as short as possible because it would mean that the country’s nuclear energy program would revert to normal in a shorter period of time.

Q: What are the main technical challenges facing Iran and the P5+1 group?

A: From a technical viewpoint, there is no difference between the two sides, which cannot be solved and there are tens of solutions for all the existing differences in this field. If, under any circumstances, the United States changes its political approach to Iran's nuclear energy program, solutions for technical problems are sure to be found. For example, to put an end to disputes over the heavy water reactor in Arak, the amount of plutonium produced by that facility can be reduced. As a result, Arak reactor will remain a heavy water reactor and will meet Iran's need to enrich uranium up to 20 percent level. Therefore, Iran has only one red line, which is to preserve its full nuclear fuel cycle and be able to go on with its uranium enrichment activities.

Q: Despite the fact that political will for reaching an agreement exists on both sides, they have failed to agree on the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement over the past six months and have not been even able to alleviate their differences. Now, how they would be possibly able to achieve such an agreement over the next four months?

A: The political will for achieving such an agreement has clearly taken shape in the United States. Since 2008 up to the present time that Obama is at the helm of the United States leadership at the White House, the United States’ approach to Iran's nuclear energy program has changed three times. Therefore, it is quite possible that its approach would change for the fourth time.

At present, the United States and five other countries involved in nuclear talks with Iran have accepted that Iran can maintain its right to enrich uranium on its soil, but they have so far refrained from giving voice to this in an explicit manner. This was the same approach that had been already taken to nuclear programs of Brazil, Japan and Argentina. Therefore, we have seen frequent changes in Obama administration’s approach to Iran's nuclear energy program during the past few years. The bottom line is that if the common sense governs the decision-making process at the White House, which seems to be the case, the necessary political will for reaching a comprehensive agreement will take shape within the next four months, in which negotiations have been extended as per the Join Plan of Action. At present, the Americans have reached the conclusion that the policy of threat and sanctions will get nowhere with Iran. As admitted by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran had only 164 centrifuges in 2003, which was not acceptable for the West. Now, the country is operating 19,000 centrifuges. Of course, economic sanctions have put pressures on the common people in Iran, but have failed to bring about much of a change in Iran's nuclear energy program.

*A researcher, documentary producer, and expert on nuclear issues, Hassan Beheshtipour received his BA in Trade Economics from Tehran University. His research topics span from US and Russian foreign policy to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

Key Words: Full Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Iran's Red Line, US President Barack Obama, Comprehensive Deal, Iran and P5+1, Nuclear Weapons, Technical Challenges, Political Will, Beheshtipour 

Source: Etemaad Newspaper
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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