As the United States and its partners in nuclear negotiations with Iran sit down in Moscow today, it’s important to recognize that time is no longer on Iran’s side. With a European embargo on Iranian oil and U.S. sanctions on Iran’s central bank about to go into effect in July, Iran’s leaders are clearly looking for some relief from this new round of economic sanctions—the toughest yet. It remains to be seen, however, if what they are willing to offer will be enough to obtain that relief.
There is little prospect that the talks will achieve a broad deal that addresses the entirety of the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. There are clear indications, however, that Iran may consider making some concessions, which the so-called P5+1 negotiators from the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany should consider seriously in order to continue lengthening the timeline it would take Iran to conceivably produce a nuclear weapon.
U.S., European, and Israeli intelligence sources believe that Iran is keeping open the option of developing a nuclear weapon, but they also agree that the Iranian leadership has not yet made the decision to do so. This understanding is key to the talks in Moscow, which are premised on the idea that the threat of severe economic sanctions will force Iran to make concessions that would in effect delay that decision of whether to try to build a nuclear device by delaying Tehran’s ability to actually make one in the first place.
Here’s where Iran’s nuclear program stands at the moment. After beginning its domestic enrichment program in 2006, Iran has steadily built up both the number of operating centrifuges and its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and is currently believed to have produced 6,197 kilograms of this low-enriched uranium, according to the May 2012 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. Iran began enriching this uranium to 20 percent at its Natanz facility in February 2010 (the uranium would have to be further enriched to 90 percent for use in a weapon). In January 2012 Iran announced that it would also begin enrichment to 20 percent at its facility at Fordow, located deep inside a mountain near the seminary city of Qom.
In June, however, IAEA inspectors verified that Iran converted about 33 percent of its 20-percent-enriched uranium stockpile into the form of metal plates for use as fuel in its Tehran Research Reactor, producing medical isotopes for cancer treatment. Once converted into this form, it is extremely difficult to reprocess into uranium for a weapon. This leaves Iran with a stockpile of 101 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium.
The most immediate way of preventing this timeline from becoming shorter is to reduce Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium. (see illustration) In January U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told CBS News that “the consensus is that if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb, and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle.” That’s why a deal that brings an IAEA-certified halt to Iran’s 20-percent enrichment and stops progress at Fordow in exchange for delaying further sanctions is a major positive step forward.
Importantly, such a deal does not foreclose further scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program or let Tehran off the hook with regard to previous U.N. Security Council demands. On the contrary, it has the potential to strengthen those efforts by allowing Iran to prove its seriousness.
Going into today’s talks, then, it is important to keep in mind that despite the claims that Iran’s leaders are seeking to draw out negotiations indefinitely it’s become clear that they are seeking an endpoint to these negotiations, too, especially as the sanctions clock is now moving faster than Iran’s nuclear clock. Further sanctions will occur within weeks while any conceivable nuclear breakout would take at least a year, and would also be detected by the IAEA.
This is a significant change from only a few years ago, when Iran’s leaders were comfortable letting the clock run on a far less stringent sanctions regime, in the face of far less international unity. The fact that Iran now appears far more eager for negotiations is the result of the Obama administration’s painstaking multilateral diplomacy and willingness to demonstrate good faith, which put the Iranian government on its back foot both at home and abroad.
Given the amount of bad blood and mutual suspicion that exists, a major breakthrough satisfying all concerns is unlikely this week. This should not blind us to the possibility of a short-term success that begins a gradual, step-by-step process moving toward the ultimate goal of an Iranian nuclear program fully in line with Iran’s treaty obligations.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress and the Director of the Center’s Middle East Progress project.