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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Rouhani Wants ‘Serious’ Nuclear Talks
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Kelsey Davenport

Iran and six world powers need to pursue “more serious and explicit negotiations” on Tehran’s nuclear program, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at an Aug. 6 press conference.

Speaking three days after his inauguration, Rouhani said Iran will not “put aside” its uranium-enrichment capabilities but that a “win-win” scenario that will “allay mutual concerns” still is possible.

In an Aug. 4 statement, the White House said that Rouhani’s inauguration is an opportunity for Iran to “act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns” about the country’s nuclear program.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, but many countries are concerned that Iran could use its nuclear capabilities to pursue nuclear weapons. The six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia the United Kingdom, and the United States) have been negotiating intermittently with Iran over its controversial nuclear program since 2006. The six countries, known as the P5+1, met with Iran twice in 2013, but did not make any progress on a deal. (See ACT, May 2013.)

Catherine Ashton, who heads the negotiating team for the P5+1, spoke Aug. 17 with Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, about resuming the negotiations, according to a statement later that day from Ashton’s office. During the call, Ashton “confirmed the need for substantial talks that will lead to concrete results swiftly,” the statement said.

Some analysts have said that Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s June 13 presidential election offers a new opening for negotiations. Just days after his win at the polls, Rouhani said he would make Iran’s nuclear program “more transparent.” (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

In an Aug. 23 e-mail, a former U.S. official told Arms Control Today that, unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani is “willing and able” to make a deal if the United States and its partners show that they are “ready to negotiate in good faith” and put “meaningful sanctions relief” on the table.

Rouhani “has the ear” of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which makes him “more likely to get a deal though Tehran” than Ahmadinejad, the former official said.

Rouhani already has made changes in key personnel involved in Iran’s nuclear program, but has not named a negotiator to take over for Saeed Jalili, whose appointment ended with Rouhani’s inauguration. Rouhani reportedly is considering moving the responsibility for nuclear negotiations to the Foreign Ministry. This would give him more authority over the negotiations than the president has had in the past, when the lead negotiator has been the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran. The supreme leader must confirm decisions of the council.

The Aug. 17 press release from Ashton’s office said she told Zarif the P5+1 is “ready to work” with Iran’s new negotiators as soon as they are appointed.

New IAEA Envoy

One of Rouhani’s new appointments is Reza Najafi, who will take over from Ali Asghar Soltanieh as Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Soltanieh was scheduled to leave the post Sept. 1.

Najafi, who has worked on disarmament issues in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, was considered for the position in 2010, but Ahmadinejad decided to extend Soltanieh’s posting at the agency instead.

Iran and the IAEA are negotiating an approach for the agency’s investigations into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities. The two sides have met 10 times since January 2012 in an attempt to reach agreement on the scope and sequence of the investigations. Yukiya Amano, director-general of the IAEA, told the organization’s Board of Governors at its quarterly meeting in June that talks with Iran are “going around in circles.” The IAEA said that it would resume talks with Iran in Vienna on Sept. 27.

The IAEA’s quarterly report on Iran, dated Aug. 28, found that Iran’s nuclear program is progressing. Since the previous report, dated May 22, Iran has installed further centrifuges at its Natanz facility, and its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent increased slightly to 185 kilograms.

A principal P5+1 concern is halting Iran’s production of 20 percent-enriched uranium and limiting the size of its stockpile of that material. (See ACT, May 2013.)

Uranium enriched to 20 percent is more easily converted to weapons grade than reactor-grade uranium, which is enriched to less than 5 percent. Experts say that approximately 250 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, when further enriched to weapons grade, is enough for one bomb.

Space Launch Site

Meanwhile, satellite imagery published last month by IHS Jane’s Military and Security Assessments revealed that Iran is currently building a launch site that could be used for larger ballistic missiles.

Michael Elleman, who served as a missile expert for the UN team that conducted weapons inspections in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, said in an Aug. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that although it is “too early to know with confidence” how the Sharud site will be used, the distance between the structures and launch pad are “consistent with a facility designed to handle large solid-propellant motors.”

Iran has tested a solid-fueled ballistic missile, the Sajjil-2, only once in the past three years, and developments on that system appear to be stalled, he said. Solid-fueled missiles are less vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes than liquid-fueled systems because the former do not need to be fueled before launch, which can take several hours.

Elleman, who is now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that “most probably” the site will be used for satellite launches.

Iran already has a satellite launch facility, but a second site is prudent given that “catastrophic launch vehicle failures” are common when developing new systems, he said. Brazil, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States all have experienced rocket explosions that destroyed launch pads, he said.

Elleman said there is a possibility that the facility has been designed to “facilitate long-range missile tests,” noting that the launch tower is taller than any ballistic missile Iran has tested to date. There are three possible designs Iran could use for a longer-range missile based on its existing systems, but there is no evidence that any of these routes is being pursued, he said.