On Eve of New Nuclear Talks, Iran Lays Down ‘Red Lines’ of its Own

By Patrick Goodenough | October 14, 2013 | 5:00 AM EDT

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani. In the Islamic Republic, the supreme leader sets policy. (Photo: Office of the supreme leader)

(CNSNews.com) – In a move that doesn't bode well for the promise of international nuclear talks due to begin in Geneva on Tuesday, Iran said Sunday it would never agree to shipping its enriched uranium abroad, describing the issue as a “red line” for the regime.

“We will negotiate regarding the form, amount and various levels of enrichment” – but not about transferring the nuclear material to another country, official media quoted deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi as saying on state television.

Another “red line” was Iran’s right to uranium enrichment, he said. “We will not back down one iota from what the Iranian people are entitled to under international regulations.”

Iran bases this stance on the fact the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) permits all nations to develop nuclear programs for peaceful purposes. But because of deep-rooted suspicions that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability under the guise of a civilian program the U.N. Security Council in four resolutions between 2006 and 2010 demanded that Tehran suspend “all” enrichment-related activities.

Not only has Iran defied those resolutions, but since 2010 it has been enriching uranium beyond the original 3.5 percent level – to 20 percent, the upper end of the scale of what is considered “low-enriched uranium” (LEU).

The Obama administration’s chief nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman – who will head the U.S. delegation in Geneva – told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month that the U.S. does “not believe there is an inherent right [in the NPT], by anyone, to enrichment.”

But Sherman also declined when questioned to say categorically that the administration could not envisage a deal that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium at home.

The upcoming round of six power (P5+1) talks involving Iran and the U.S., Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany is the first since the election of “moderate” Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, and expectations of progress in the decade-old impasse have been raised to levels not seen in years.

Rouhani is a former top nuclear negotiator and a firm supporter of the nuclear program. During his election campaign, however, he did hint at the need to balance the program with the economic needs of the people of the sanctions-hit country.

But skeptics note that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately decides policy. (Rouhani was one of only eight candidates allowed to run after a Khamenei-appointed council rejected 678 others.)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will head the Iranian delegation to Geneva, although since his U.S. counterpart John Kerry is not scheduled to take part Zarif will not lead the actual negotiations. Instead Araqchi will be sitting around the table with Sherman and the other P5+1 representatives during the two days of talks.

Araqchi said Sunday Iran would present a “specific” new plan during the talks but that it also expects new proposals from the other countries involved, calling earlier ones “outdated.”

Over the past eight years the P5+1 – and before it, the E.U.-3 (Britain, France and Germany) – have put forward multiple proposals aimed at resolving the standoff, but none has borne fruit.

In a separate interview Sunday, Araqchi told the IRNA state news agency that it was possible the Iranian and U.S. delegations may hold bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the P5+1 talks.

‘Breakout times are growing dangerously short’

Iran’s main objective in the talks is to get international sanctions lifted. The Tehran Times on Sunday highlighted wire service reports saying the U.S. delegation heading for Geneva includes a sanctions policy expert, Adam Szubin of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who during a speech at the United Nations last year literally drew a red line on a diagram to illustrate what he said was a need for a clear response to Iran’s nuclear efforts, is concerned about any softening on sanctions.

In a series of interviews with European media last week he warned against any easing of sanctions ahead of a guaranteed end to Iran’s uranium enrichment. Netanyahu made the same appeals during phone conversations with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Kerry stressed late last month that the U.S. “is not going to lift the sanctions until it is clear that a very verifiable, accountable, transparent process is in place, whereby we know exactly what Iran is going to be doing with its program.”

Still, the administration has asked lawmakers to hold off temporarily on any move to tighten the restrictions.

When she appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month Sherman urged the Senate not to move ahead with tough new sanctions legislation – passed in the House by a 400-20 vote last July – before the Geneva talks.

Testifying at the same hearing, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security told the panel that Iran had produced “far more LEU than it needs,” and that even a halt to enrichment now would leave it in possession of stocks “far in excess of its current needs.”

Albright cited ISIS and University of Virginia calculations to estimate that, if Iran took a decision to move rapidly to build a nuclear weapons, depending on which LEU stocks and centrifuges it dedicated to the task it could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon in anywhere from just over two months to just under one month.

“These estimated breakout times today are sufficiently long enough to allow for detection by [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors and a military response that could end further production,” he said.

“However, breakout times are growing dangerously short as Iran builds up its stock of near 20 percent LEU hexafluoride and installs more centrifuges.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow