October 9, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1024

The Iranian Regime Signals It Will Agree To A Deal With The U.S. – If Its Right To Enrich Uranium On Its Soil Is Recognized; The U.S. Administration Signals That It Will Accept This Condition

October 9, 2013 | By Yigal Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1024


The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) bans signatory countries that are not members of the "Nuclear Club" from enriching uranium on their own soil unless they meet stringent regulatory preconditions and have proven that the enrichment is both low-level and strictly for civilian purposes. The international community allows countries that require nuclear energy for peaceful purposes to purchase the enriched uranium that they need from authorized countries, under the supervision and approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Many prosperous Western countries do this in order to operate reactors for civilian purposes such as producing power and medical isotopes.

Up until now, the consensus in the international community, as expressed by the position of the 5+1 group in the UN Security Council, was consistently against recognizing Iran as a nuclear state and against Iran's interpretation of the NPT – according to which it is entitled to enrich uranium on its soil. This policy was also expressed unequivocally by Mohamed ElBaradei during his term as IAEA chief; in a February 2005 interview with AFP, he said: "We just cannot continue business as usual, that every country can build its own factories for separating plutonium or enriching uranium. Then we are really talking about 30, 40 countries sitting on the fence with a nuclear weapons capability that could be converted into a nuclear weapon in a matter of months."[1]

Iran's right to enrich uranium on its own soil is the bone of contention in Iran's dispute with the international community and the UN Security Council. Security Council resolutions are demanding that Iran immediately cease all enrichment activity, while Iran's refusal to comply with the resolutions has led to sanctions against it.[2]

It must be noted that Iran has only two nuclear reactors for civilian purposes – one in Bushehr, which produces electricity and is powered by fuel rods that are enriched up to 5% and are purchased from Russia under a contract between the two countries, and another, a Tehran research reactor that is meant to produce medical isotopes. This second reactor requires several kilograms every year of fuel enriched to 19.75%, and Iran already has in its possession more than enough uranium enriched to 20% to operate this reactor for its entire lifetime.

It should also be mentioned that Iran claims that the plutonium reactor that is currently under construction in Arak and that is set to become operational in about a year will produce the same medical isotopes, in a track that is parallel to the uranium track at the Tehran reactor and allegedly for the same purpose. The international community has demanded that Iran halt all activity at this reactor over fears that it will be used for military purposes.

Iran is demanding the right to enrich uranium on its soil because recognition of this right will make it a nuclear power, and a member of the global nuclear club. Even if it does not develop nuclear weapons, either right away or at any point thereafter, as a "threshold state," it will still be capable of doing so if it so desires.

U.S. Administration Uses Nuclear Issue To Advance U.S.-Iran Reconciliation

Until today, the U.S. administration was alone in its willingness, though it was a qualified willingness, to allow Iran to enrich uranium to a low level on its own soil, and to recognize its right to do so. It was also the only global element willing to recognize any Iranian civil nuclear program.[3] In a September 29 interview with CBS's 60 Minutes, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set out steps that the Iranians could take to prove to the world that their nuclear program is peaceful: "They could offer to cease voluntarily to take enrichment above a certain level, keep it at a very low level because there's no need to have it at a higher level for a peaceful program."[4] By this, he implied that a voluntary Iranian halt to enriching uranium to 20% while continuing its enrichment of uranium up to 5% would be viewed by the U.S. as a positive step.

A clearer position was expressed by the Obama administration's chief Iran negotiator, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, on behalf of the administration, when she refused to rule out recognizing Iran's right to enrich uranium on its soil. She told a Senate hearing on October 3: "I'm not going to negotiate in public. All I can do is repeat what the President of the United States has said: We respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy."[5]

At the same hearing, Ms. Sherman asked Congress to refrain from levelling additional sanctions against Iran in the second half of October, for fear that this would thwart the president's attempt to promote dialogue with Iran.[6] The additional sanctions in question were initiated by Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsey Graham and are to be brought before Congress later this month.

Also, ten days after Kerry's statements in the 60 Minutes interview, Russia's position has undergone a change. According to statements made by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a Russian television interview, Russia will recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium on its own soil provided that it can absolutely prove that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, and that it will cooperate fully with the IAEA.[7]

For the past few years, President Obama has been trying to promote U.S.-Iran bilateral relations and reconciliation, sending the regime hints and enticements regarding the nuclear issue. In his April 2009 speech to the Turkish parliament, he expressed his desire for bilateral relations with Iran, stressing that the only thing he asked of it was that it not develop nuclear weapons: "I have made it clear to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran that the United States seeks engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We want Iran to play its rightful role in the community of nations. Iran is a great civilization. We want them to engage in the economic and political integration that brings prosperity and security. But Iran's leaders must choose whether they will try to build a weapon or build a better future for their people."[8]

Also in his Cairo speech, in June of that year, President Obama addressed Iran directly and offered to recognize its right to peaceful nuclear power: "Any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access to peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I'm hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal... I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust [vis-à-vis Iran] but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point."[9]

While President Obama's wording was deliberately vague, and he refrained from specifically mentioning Iran's right to enrichment, he has reiterated his positive statements on the nuclear issue as enticement to Iran to agree to a dialogue.

The Obama administration's bilateral policy towards Iran is aimed at ending Iran's ideological enmity towards the U.S. – as embodied by Iran's stock reference to the U.S. as the "Great Satan" and the ritual chants of "Death to America" led by regime officials at Friday prayers and other events, ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is also aimed at undermining Third World anti-Americanism, for which Iran is the standard bearer. The Obama administration's "limited uranium enrichment" card is its enticement for bringing Iran to abandon its decades-old antagonism towards the U.S.

It appears that in striving for this goal, the Obama administration has been willing to break the international consensus on Iran, which includes Europe as well as Arab countries that are former U.S. allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the GCC countries, and others. It also has seemed willing to pressure the European members of the P5+1 group to recognize Iran's right to low-level uranium enrichment for civilian purposes on its own soil with various restrictions, chief among them obstacles to its ability to develop nuclear weapons.

While President Obama's overall policy since taking office has been to rely on international consensus – such as in the Syria crisis – in the matter of Iran he seems to be promoting a bilateral agenda while disregarding the international community's opposition to a nuclear Iran.

The Iranian Position

Overall, it can be said that Iran has been in a tight spot; after a decade of failed negotiations with the EU3 and the P5+1, the only member of the international community that up until today was willing to recognize a few Iranian nuclear rights was the U.S. However, the U.S. is also the only element with which Iran cannot develop a dialogue, because of its ideological commitment to enmity towards the "Great Satan." This enmity, as explained above, is deeply ingrained and rooted, and is an integral part of the ideological foundations of the regime of the Islamic Revolution; this is accompanied by the Iranian regime's fundamental distrust of the U.S.

Moreover, until President Obama's September 27 phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, minutes before he left U.S. territory, public dialogue with the U.S. was considered taboo as well as against the values of the Revolution. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even hinted, in an October 5 speech, that this phone conversation should not have taken place.[10] It will also be recalled that Rohani refrained from attending a luncheon at which President Obama was a guest, so as to not be publicly pressured into shaking his hand. Iran was forced to respond to U.S. overtures, but the most it would allow to be published was a photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry seated next to each other during the P5+1 talks.

However, on the practical level, because of Iran's near-crisis economic situation due to the sanctions, the regime has consented, with Khamenei's approval, to hold talks with the U.S.[11] In response to U.S. hints that it could change its position and agree that Iran may conduct some form of uranium enrichment on its own soil, Iranian regime officials, among them Foreign Minister Zarif, IRGC advisor Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, and Majlis speaker Ali Larijani, have begun making positive statements regarding a possible arrangement with the U.S.

Foreign Minister Zarif accepted Secretary of State Kerry's challenge, and presented Iran's demands in the bilateral U.S.-Iran negotiations that have in effect been playing out publicly in the media and circumventing the European members of the P5+1. In his response, Zarif stressed that if the Americans meet Iran's demands for recognition of its right to enrich uranium on its own soil, an agreement would be possible. He said: "If the United States is ready to recognize Iran's rights, to respect Iran's rights and move from that perspective, then we have a real chance... We are willing to engage in negotiations. The United States also needs to do things very rapidly. One is to dismantle its illegal sanctions against Iran."[12]

At Tehran Friday prayers on October 4, Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi, advisor to the IRGC commander and a member of Iran's Expediency Council, explained to the public Iran's latest moves vis-à-vis the U.S.: "In recent weeks we have witnessed a new stream and a new approach [towards the U.S.], which at first glance appear different than what we are used to. But, as has been emphasized a number of times, all [Iranian] moves will be in the framework of regime diplomacy. This move [i.e. the Iran-U.S. dialogue] is being carried out as part of the regime's tactical shift and maneuvering aimed at resolving international issues. This change, which is meant to be a breakthrough, has been defined by [Leader] Khamenei as 'heroic flexibility'... The aim of the talks with the U.S. is to obtain nuclear energy... Today we are promoting a different approach, that Islam does not prevent. You must remember that even the Infallible Imams tried different paths and methods at various times to achieve the goal... [13]

"We are not denying the fact that we need dialogue with the world and with the U.S. They need it as well. At the very least, we need these talks to put a stop to their evil acts, such as the oppressive sanctions on us, and [therefore] we are compelled to obtain a breakthrough in our relations [with the U.S.]."[14]

Also, during a Serbia visit, Majlis speaker Ali Larijani hinted, on October 7, that it was possible to arrive at an agreement with the U.S.: "We believe that under the different conditions that exist now an opportunity has been created for several countries [i.e. the U.S.], which up to now have had a different attitude towards Iran, to try and resolve the issue, in light of [the current] reality. In New York [during Rohani's visit] new ground was paved, by means of which we can establish relations [with the U.S.] – obviously, without reiterating past [hostile] statements. The time of past statements is over, and we must talk in accordance with today's reality."[15]

What Iran's Demands Mean

It should be clarified that by demanding the right to enrich uranium on its own soil, Iran is undermining the foundations of the consensus of the international community and of the global nuclear order that was set in place by the superpowers in 1970, when the NPT entered into force. Under this global order, only a few countries have nuclear status and maintain a nuclear monopoly, while all the rest may obtain from these few the enriched uranium that they require for civilian nuclear purposes.

Iran has always refused to accept this principle; both Majlis speaker Ali Larijani and the Iranian daily Kayhan, which is close to Khamenei, explained that this is because Iran is striving for at least "threshold nation" status.

During his Serbia visit, Larijani said on October 7: "At a certain point, the Western [countries] decided that they were the possessors of advanced [nuclear] knowledge, and that [they had to] stop Iran at all costs from attaining peaceful nuclear energy. We fundamentally reject this division between the few countries that may possess nuclear energy and the others that may not, and we consider this mistaken... The Islamic Republic of Iran has from the outset intended to stand fast [against this division] and therefore we have fought [over it]. Thus, we are past the stage where they wanted to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear knowledge."[16]

Also, in its October 5 editorial, Kayhan stated: "If according to the NPT enrichment is the right of all IAEA members, then the Islamic Republic of Iran insists on having this right [as well]. If building and possessing a nuclear bomb is banned, then this ban should apply to all the countries [hinting at those who already have it]."[17]

The international community's approval of Iran's demands for nuclear threshold status and to enrich uranium on its soil would set off a regional nuclear arms race involving the Arab countries, in addition to a global nuclear arms race – precisely the scenario that IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei warned about (see above).

It must be clarified that at this stage, the Iranians have some room to make concessions in the upcoming negotiations, to present a positive position, without giving up what for them is the main objective – the right to enrich uranium on their own soil. This room for concessions includes a halt to enriching uranium to 20%, and acceptance of limited oversight of certain facilities, in the spirit of Secretary of State Kerry's proposal that the U.S. would see this as a positive step, as he set out in his 60 Minutes interview.

In the interview, in response to the question, "Give me an example, one concrete step, one thing that they can do to assure the world that they’re giving up their ambitions," Kerry said: "They could immediately open up inspection of the Fordow facility, a secret facility underground in the mountains. They could immediately sign the protocols, the Additional Protocols of the international community regarding inspections. They could offer to cease voluntarily to take enrichment above a certain level because there’s no need to have it at a higher level for a peaceful program."[18]

It can be assumed that Iran will make these concessions, in order to at least block the possible additional sanctions proposed by Senators Menendez and Graham. However, these concessions will not resolve the main dispute between the international community and Iran on the issue of Iran's demand for the right to enrich uranium on its own soil. Furthermore, these concessions do not address the issue of the plutonium track at Arak, which is set to become operational next year.

* A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] AFP, February 23, 2005; see also ElBaradei even appointed a panel of experts for preventing member countries' uranium enrichment, and the group published its conclusions in a report released as a UN document for the May 2005 NPT Review Conference. The report stated that the production of nuclear fuel should be taken out of the hands of individual nations and put into multilateral groups in order to keep countries from secretly developing atomic weapons (see

[2] See United Nations Security Council Resolutions against Iran: United Nations Security Council Resolution 1696 – passed on 31 July 2006. Demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and threatened sanctions.

[3] In his October 5, 2013 column in the Washington Post, David Ignatius implied that in addition to the administration's willingness to recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium so long as the activity is restricted and verified to be for civilian purposes, it is also willing to offer new regional security arrangements in a special gathering at Camp David with regional leaders. This could imply an American willingness to provide the Gulf States with a nuclear umbrella, as was also hinted at by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July 2009: "We want Iran to calculate, what I think is a fair assessment, that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon." The Guardian (U.K.), July 22, 2009; New York Times, July 23, 2009. See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 888, Iran Becomes A Nuclear Threshold State, October 5, 2012.

[10], October 5, 2013. Khamenei said that "some of what occurred in New York is inappropriate because the American administration is not trustworthy, and is condescending, illogical, and does not keep its promises."

[12] Reuters, September 30, 2013.

[14] ISNA (Iran), October 4, 2013.

[15] Mehr (Iran), October 7, 2013.

[16] Mehr (Iran), October 7, 2013.

[17] Kayhan (Iran), October 5, 2013.

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