ON 21 October 2009 negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme wrapped up in Vienna. Terms such as “breakthrough” and “victory” were prematurely used to describe the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) preliminary agreement with Iran. The agreement was seen as a way to assuage international concerns over Iran's nuclear intentions and prove a substantial vindication of President Barack Obama's engagement policy. Even before the international optimism has settled in, the wariness has begun to creep in. How distant has the attempt to build cooperation is a question that may only be answered if the Iranian leadership accepts the proposed agreement in its entirety and after the IAEA inspectors complete their inspection of the recently discovered clandestine nuclear enrichment facility near the city of Qum.
The IAEA draft agreement is essentially providing Iran fuel sufficient for its stated civilian purposes but depriving Iran of any justification for enriching to higher levels itself. The details include that Iran would ship 1,200 kilograms of its own stockpiled low-enriched uranium (LEU) in one batch to Russia and subsequently to France for reprocessing by the end of this year, which would eventually be used as medical isotopes in Iran. The LEU would be enriched to 19.75 per cent, and that material would then be sent to France for fabrication into fuel rods and then eventually returned to Iran. The idea is to allow time for negotiations to convince Iran to freeze its nuclear programme because the LEU, if left in Iran, poses a threat that it could be turned into weapon-grade uranium and used in nuclear weapons in the near future. This agreement does not solve the fundamental problem of what to do about Iran's growing nuclear weapons capabilities and how to convince Iran to disband its uranium enrichment programme. It, however, does reduce further sanctions from being imposed on Iran and the immediate threat of military action from countries such as Israel. Iran continues to refuse to accept a halt to its enrichment, which means it has also refused to accept a negotiating structure to discuss the suspension of enrichment, which is called “freeze for freeze.” By that formula, the United Nations Security Council would freeze its sanctions against Iran and Iran would freeze its LEU programme. This reaction does not confirm Iran's nuclear ambitions but does reinforce the scepticism felt by the international community.
However, state media has recently reported that Iran wants major amendments within the framework of the agreement which it broadly accepts. The changes have not been elaborated upon but Iran has stated that they would present their response to the proposed agreement within 48 hours, on 30 October 2009, a week after a deadline set by the IAEA. Iranian opposition to the agreement could be driven by concerns that it weakens Iran's control over its stockpiles of nuclear fuel and could be perceived as a concession to the West. In fact Iran has announced a preference to buy the 20 per cent enriched uranium for its reactor, rather than export its own uranium to Russia and France for enrichment. Iranian leadership appears to be deeply divided over the proposal and divergent views have emerged. In response to ambiguous statements by Iran, this development was described by the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, as “not a good sign…it is a bad indication.” Iran's response is seen as a continuation of its cat and mouse game where it has often used counter-proposals as a way to draw out negotiations with the West leading to an unravelling of the West's policy of diplomatic engagement.
Along with the draft agreement on enrichment, IAEA inspectors are undertaking a visit to the newly revealed enrichment facility. These two simultaneous pledges are seen as a litmus test of Iran's stated intent for peaceful civilian use and as a basis for more ambitious negotiations on curbing Iran's nuclear aspirations. Ultimately, the draft agreement is seen as a time-saving agreement as it makes it less likely for Iran to immediately produce nuclear weapons and creates an environment conducive for negotiating. Although it seems doubtful, if Iran accepts the agreement as is, it can be seen as a small victory on an otherwise arduous path to the goal of a permanent freeze and then suspension of its enrichment programme. The position of the West remains the same; they will look at a whole range of issues with Iran, including whether to continue negotiations, or whether it should advance to a new chapter wherein harsher sanctions are imposed on Iran.
Iran has become something of an international pariah and it is unable to operate with great legitimacy around the world, particularly after its recent election debacle. The nation is constrained and if well handled, can be kept that way until the regime becomes more transparent and cooperative on the nuclear issue. If the agreement fails, any new measure of tougher sanctions should target the leadership and regime of the nation. In the words of British scholar, Timothy Garton Ash, “there is a physics of diplomacy, but there is also a chemistry of politics” and in this context, Iran's “chemistry of politics” may prove to be the critical element that changes the dynamics within the nation to a regime that wants to symbiotically engage the international community.
By arrangement with IPCS, New Delhi.