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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Iran, P5+1 Move to Technical Talks
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Kelsey Davenport

Senior-level talks between Iran and six world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program are on hold, as the lead representatives from the two sides decided in Moscow on June 18-19 to wait to schedule a fourth round of negotiations until after a lower-level technical meeting is held on July 3.

The purpose of the July experts meeting in Istanbul is to “provide further clarification” on the proposal made by the six countries—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—according to Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and the lead negotiator for the six powers. Speaking at a press conference at the end of the Moscow talks, she also said the technical talks will allow the six powers to “study the issues” Iran raised during the June meeting.

Iran and the six countries, known as the P5+1, have held three rounds of senior-level talks this year on international concerns relating to Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations between the parties resumed in April after a 15-month hiatus. (See ACT, May 2012.)

A fourth round of negotiations is still possible, Ashton said at the press conference. After the technical-level meeting and “contact” between deputy negotiators, she and the lead Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, would discuss “prospects for a future meeting at the political level,” she said.

Although Ashton said that “significant gaps” remained between the two parties, she stated that “critical issues” had been discussed and that Iran addressed “the substance” of the issues for the first time.

Jalili expressed optimism that the technical-level talks could narrow the differences between the two sides. In his remarks at the press conference, he said an experts-level meeting could bring the parties “closer together” and that it was an “important result” of the Moscow talks.

Views outside of Moscow, however, were mixed. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on June 20 that the United States did not want “talks for talks’ sake” and that the technical-level meeting is an opportunity to “close some of the gaps in comprehension.” British Prime Minister David Cameron characterized the Moscow talks as a “missed opportunity,” saying there had been a “lack of progress.” He called on Iran to return to talks “willing to negotiate seriously.”

Moscow Proposals

Two proposals were discussed during the talks, one put forward by the P5+1 and the other by Iran. Ashton characterized the exchanges over the positions as “detailed, tough, and frank.”

The P5+1 proposal was the same one that the six powers put forward during the second round of talks in Baghdad in May, according to Nuland. It focuses on suspending the enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level, shipping Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium out of the country, halting enrichment activities at the Fordow enrichment facility, and cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, Iran would receive fuel plates for its Tehran Research Reactor, assistance with nuclear safety, and spare parts for civilian aircraft.

Iran maintains that it needs to enrich uranium to 20 percent in order to fabricate fuel for the Tehran reactor, which produces medical isotopes. Uranium enriched to 20 percent, however, can be converted into weapons-grade material more quickly than uranium enriched to the levels required for power reactors, which Iran also produces. By suspending 20 percent enrichment, shipping the current stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium out of the country, and providing Iran with fuel fabricated elsewhere for the Tehran reactor, the P5+1 proposal would extend the time required if Iran decided to pursue nuclear weapons while still allowing Tehran to produce medical isotopes. Suspending the 20 percent enrichment at Fordow is of particular concern to the United States and other countries because the location of the nuclear facility, deep inside a mountain, would make a military strike against it difficult.

In her June 19 press briefing, Nuland described the P5+1 as “completely united” behind the proposal.

Further details on the Iranian five-point plan first presented in Baghdad emerged during the Moscow talks. A June 18 article in The Guardian outlined the five points of the Iranian plan as acknowledgment of Iran’s right to enrich uranium in tandem with the “operationalisation” of a fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that condemned the pursuit of nuclear weapons as forbidden in Islam; sanctions relief in return for cooperating with the IAEA; cooperation on nuclear energy and safety; confidence-building measures, including a possible limit on production of 20 percent-enriched uranium; and cooperation on regional and non-nuclear issues.

In his remarks at the Moscow press conference, Jalili’s description of the proposal was consistent with but more general than the Guardian account. He said Iran mentioned four nuclear-related points during the negotiations: “confidence building, cooperation in clarification, opposition to weapons of mass destruction, and normal nuclear cooperation.” Any future agreements would have to recognize Iran’s rights in these areas, “particularly 20 percent enrichment,” Jalili said.

Senators Call for End to Talks

Prior to the Moscow talks, a bipartisan group of 44 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to abandon the P5+1 talks with Iran if an agreement was not reached in Moscow. Specifically, the letter said that the “absolute minimum steps” for Iran to take include shutting down the Fordow enrichment facility, halting enrichment above 5 percent, and sending the stockpile of uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country. If Tehran were to “verifiably implement” these actions, it would demonstrate Iran’s commitment to the negotiations and justify further talks, the letter said. The senators also called for further sanctions against Iran if a “substantive agreement” was not reached in Moscow (see next story).

In a statement made after the talks, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of the organizers of the letter, said that negotiations were the “preferred forum” for an agreement, but in “their absence,” Congress will “pursue other mechanisms,” including further sanctions, to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In a June 20 House Armed Services Committee hearing on Iran’s nuclear program, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, said the “intensive diplomatic and economic steps” taken to convince Iran to abandon “military nuclear ambitions” do not appear to have succeeded.

No Agreement With IAEA

Iran met with the IAEA on June 8 in Vienna, but the agency and Tehran failed to make progress on signing a framework agreement to resolve the IAEA’s outstanding concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Going into the Vienna meeting between IAEA Deputy Director-General Herman Nackaerts and Iran’s envoy to the agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, expectations were raised that a deal could be reached. In May, after a short-notice trip to Tehran, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said the sides were “close” to agreement on a “structured approach” for addressing concerns over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, June 2012.) Iran maintains that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

The structured approach would create a framework for agency inspections and an Iranian response to concerns the IAEA had expressed, in a report last November, about the potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. (See ACT, December 2011.) Some experts had speculated that a framework agreement with the IAEA may have given Iran leverage at the Moscow talks to press for some sanctions relief or a delay in the implementation of a July 1 EU oil embargo.

Nackaerts characterized the June meeting as “disappointing,” saying that there had been “no progress.” According to his statement, Iran was presented with a revised document in Vienna that addressed Tehran’s “earlier stated concerns.” Iran, however, “raised issues we have already discussed and added new ones.”

Soltanieh said the issues surrounding the discussions were “complicated” and that he hoped a venue for new discussions would be determined soon so that the parties could “conclude” the structured approach. The two sides did not set a date for their next meeting.

Just two days before meeting with Nackaerts, Soltanieh addressed the IAEA Board of Governors during its quarterly meeting, saying that Iran intended to “engage and work intensively” with the agency “with expectation of prompt closure” of the concerns over the possible military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear program.