IAEA and Iran: Resolving the nuclear impasse
President Hassan Rouhani generated a positive buzz yesterday with his United Nations General Assembly statements about Iranâ€™s determination to resolve the nuclear impasse with the international community. Though he argued Tehran was not prepared to give up its enrichment program, the new president declared â€śnuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iranâ€™s security,â€ť adding that his government was now committed to â€śtime-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal ofÂ mutual uncertainties with full transparencyâ€ť to resolve any doubts.
While this lays the basis for the resumption of negotiations with the United States and its allies, we need not await the results to test Rouhaniâ€™s sincerity. That can begin Friday, September 27, when Iranian and International Atomic Energy Agency officials sit down in Vienna in a long-scheduled meeting to break the protracted deadlock over unanswered questions about the breadth of Tehranâ€™s nuclear enterprise.
Director General Yukiya Amano summed up the stakes in his September 9 statement toÂ the IAEAâ€™s board of governors: â€śThe agency has not been able to begin substantive work with Iran on resolving outstanding issues, including those related to possible military dimensions on Iranâ€™s nuclear programme.â€ť The Vienna talks now provide the best opportunity to make progress.
The discussions will mark the 11th time since January 2012 that the agency and Iran have met to develop a â€śstructured approachâ€ť to resolve open questions.
It comes with a dash of hope from Rouhaniâ€™s past. From 2003 to 2005, he was Iranâ€™s nuclear negotiator.Â His tenure came just when Tehran had fallen to multiple faux pas following the August 2002 revelation by an Iranian dissident that the revolutionary regime had built a secret nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz.
Iranâ€™s first response claimed victimhood, due to â€śselective and discriminatoryâ€ť diplomacy,Â â€śfalse attributionâ€ť and â€śpartisan politics.â€ťÂ When that approach failed to garner sympathy, Tehran arranged for then-IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to visit Natanz.Â But that backfired when IAEA requested — and got — grudging access to other activities Iran denied being involved in.
It fell on Rouhani, as nuclear negotiator, to pick up the pieces.Â He pursuedÂ three tracks.Â One came in Iranâ€™s declaration to IAEA that it was â€ścommencing a new phase of confidence and co-operationâ€ť by volunteering new nuclear information.Â As a sign of good faith, Tehran signed (but did not ratify) the Additional Protocol that would allow IAEA to visit undeclared nuclear sites.
The second emerged in a letter Rouhani wrote to the Bush administration, calling for dialogue to address all issues between Washington and Tehran. (The White House ignored the communication.)Â Then, most significantly, Rouhani entered into negotiations with British, French and German diplomats with ElBaradei at times acting as interlocutor.
These negotiations, which resulted in Iranâ€™s suspension of enrichment activities, marked perhaps the closest the nuclear impasse has ever come to a solution. However, the talks stalled due to a combination of continuing evidence that supported Western suspicions about Iranâ€™s nuclear cheating; a trickle of what Tehran viewed as inconsequential incentives from the Europeans, and pressure from elements in the Iranian government calling for preservation of enrichment capacity.
Then the ascendancy of the conservative Ahmadinejad presidency in August 2005 ended Rouhaniâ€™s efforts and returned Iran to a more contentious posture.
Since Rouhani is now in a key policy position, with the Supreme Leaderâ€™s blessing, this is the time to test Iranâ€™s seriousness. The Vienna meeting is the place to start.
Success will require the new government to respond to a series of issues IAEA outlined in 2011. These include information about theÂ â€śrelevant locations, equipment or documentation related to possible military dimensions to Iranâ€™s nuclear programme.â€ť Tehran must also provide information about uranium conversion and metallurgy, nuclear-relevant high explosives manufacturing, and testing of missile re-entry vehicle designs for nuclear payloads, among many other matters.
Iran informed the IAEA earlier this month that it is prepared to cooperate in â€śmutual confidence-building and constructive interactionâ€ť in order to â€śput an end to Iranâ€™s nuclear dossier.â€ť On Friday, it will have the opportunity to do just that by agreeing to the structured approach the agency proposes.
Should Tehran waiver or fail to cooperate, it will have to bear the consequences of continued international sanctions — and the risk that â€śall other optionsâ€ť will follow as well.
PHOTO (TOP): Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine
PHOTO (Insert 1): International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano waits for a board of governors meeting to begin at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader
PHOTO (Insert 2): Hassan Rouhani (L), when he was head of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on their way to a press briefing in Vienna on November 8, 2003. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger