The resumption of Iranian nuclear negotiations in Geneva this week has been accompanied by raised expectations for a prospective agreement. Indeed, a joint statement issued by the Iranian Foreign Minister and the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs called the first round of talks “substantive and forward-looking,” while a U.S. official has described conversations with the Iranian delegation as “intense, detailed, straightforward, candid”. Indeed, in a departure from past pronouncements, even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) referred to its recent discussions with Iran as “very productive,” the whole underpinning an atmosphere of optimism.
Yet, amidst this hope there remains cause for concern given the Iranian regime’s longstanding “3-D” negotiating strategy: denial, deception, and delay. While the change in Iranian leadership may be seen as a sign of progress, it should be recalled that newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani had himself boasted about this negotiating strategy in earlier negotiations, saying: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan… In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan.”
As such, in order that the optimism find expression in concrete advances promoting international peace and security – and the well-being of the Iranian people themselves – current negotiations should be grounded in the following foundational principles:
1) The U.S. and other international powers must insist that Iran abide by, and fully implement, its international legal obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Crucially, they must ensure that the true nature of the NPT is recognized, and make clear that – contrary to the assertions of the Iranian regime – the NPT does not confer a “right to enrich.” Compliance with these obligations is not a concession, but a set of obligations that Iran must independently respect.
2) Specifically, Iran must abide by Security Council Resolutions requiring it to suspend enrichment until “confidence is restored in the exclusively peaceful nature” of its nuclear program. This will ensure that the regime cannot use negotiations as a stall tactic to mask a nuclear breakthrough. For verification, Iran would have to transfer its stockpile of enriched uranium to another country in escrow, and that uranium would then be made available to Iran – with appropriate monitoring – for use in its civil program.
3) As a further safeguard against the deception and delay that have characterized the Iranian approach in the past, a strict deadline for the completion of negotiations must be announced and imposed. If the Iranian regime believes that it can drag talks out indefinitely, it may well keep talking until it achieves undetectable nuclear capability.
4) Iran must address the concerns of the IAEA that it has dissembled about its nuclear activities. This means allowing IAEA inspectors unfettered access to suspected nuclear sites, in the form of both unannounced inspections and the remote monitoring of facilities.
5) Sanctions must remain in place until a comprehensive and verifiable agreement is reached. Whereas the Iranian delegation has reportedly offered to accept certain limits on enrichment in exchange for the rollback of sanctions as a preliminary confidence-building measure, this would risk reducing the urgency with which Iran pursues a conclusive deal. As has been demonstrated in the past, Iranian acceptance of interim restrictions does not in itself presage further progress. Therefore, because sanctions have been an important element of the international pressure that has brought Iran back to the negotiating table, they must not be abandoned or relaxed until they have achieved their ultimate aim.
6) In the event that Iran does not take meaningful steps to reassure the international community about its nuclear intentions, the strengthening of sanctions must remain a possibility. Increased sanctions would also be a consequence if negotiations break down or extend past a stated deadline.
7) Any final agreement must protect against an undetectable breakout capacity, let alone a successful nuclear weaponization program. Accordingly, a comprehensive, concrete, and verifiable agreement must include restrictions on the amount and level of uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes only; on the amount and type of centrifuges; and on the heavy water facility at Arak, which may be used to produce plutonium and arrive at a breakout capacity by other means. Moreover, the nuclear plant at Fordow – which is embedded in a mountain, immune to any military strike – must be closed and dismantled. All of these undertakings must be anchored in an agreement providing for their verification.
8) Finally, negotiations must not overlook domestic human rights abuses in Iran. When the U.S. negotiated an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, it linked security, economics, and human rights; negotiations with Iran must do the same. President Rouhani has made token gestures, such as releasing certain political prisoners, but he has taken no meaningful steps to reform an Iranian regime that criminalizes innocence. Indeed, the rate of executions has actually increased since Rouhani took office, torture remains widespread, hundreds of political prisoners remain incarcerated, women and members of minority communities – particularly the Baha’i – suffer systematic persecution, and the culture of impunity is symbolized by the scandalous appointment as Justice Minister of Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a man implicated in a litany of major human rights violations, including the 1988 massacre of 5,000 political prisoners. This massive domestic repression must also be addressed in any final agreement.
As talks resume, the optimism of the delegations may be encouraging, though not yet warranted. One cannot ignore or sanitize Iran’s history of negotiating in bad faith and thereby allow hope for a positive outcome to override the imperative of demanding concrete, verifiable, and comprehensive action.