October 30, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1030

U.S. Administration Uses 5+1 Talks To Conduct Bilateral Back-Channel Talks With Iran; Recognition Of Iran's Right To Low-Level Uranium Enrichment Will Destabilize Global Nuclear Order, Lead To Nuclearization OF Middle East

October 30, 2013 | By Y. Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1030


The nuclear talks with Iran, which are set to resume in Geneva on November 7, 2013, have turned into talks on two separate yet parallel tracks. One track is Iran's talks with the 5+1 group, while the main thrust of the other, which bypasses the 5+1, is direct U.S.-Iran talks under the auspices of the 5+1 talks. This bilateral track may also include secret contacts. But the official contacts are under the auspices of the 5+1 talks because Iran will not agree to official direct contact without maximal incentive to do so.[1]

Why Are Iran And The U.S. Bypassing The 5+1 Countries?

Iran and the U.S. are bypassing the 5+1 because they are both interested in doing so. First, the U.S. is interested because the Obama administration is alone in its flexible stance vis-à-vis Iran, and it is trying to reach understandings with it directly; it will then present these understandings to the 5+1 forum in an attempt to force it to accept them and thus turn them into a matter of international consensus. It was reported only recently that as part of the E.U.'s new approach in reinforcing its Iran sanctions regime, it is planning to revoke exemptions granted in recent months to several companies.[2] This runs counter to the American administration's efforts to prevent Congress from imposing additional sanctions.

Attempting to conceal the gaps between its position and Europe’s, the U.S. is demanding that the 5+1-Iran track be conducted in secret. In contrast, the Iranians are demanding that the 5+1 talks be open and transparent, so that they are not accused at home of selling out the country's nuclear interest.[3]

It should be emphasized that the Obama administration is considering unfreezing tens of billions of dollars' worth of Iranian assets, a move that would likely be accompanied by an Iranian announcement that it is reducing the level to which it is enriching uranium. By doing this, the Obama administration would be circumventing both Congressional sanctions and the 5+1's consensus that sanctions on Iran not be lifted unless Iran takes a very significant preliminary measure.[4]

Iran is interested in direct talks with the U.S. because the consensus in the 5+1 – that is, the international community's position – remains unchanged: fundamental opposition to Iran's becoming a nuclear state; fundamental rejection of its demand to enrich uranium to any level on its soil and a demand that it cease and desist from doing so immediately in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions; harsh criticism of Iran's refusal to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and of its continued lack of transparency towards it and towards the international community; and harboring suspicions that it is conducting military nuclear activity.

In contrast to the 5+1's position, the U.S. has in recent months been hinting that it would be willing to recognize an Iran that is nuclear for civilian purposes and under strict oversight, and that it would consider Iran's cessation of enriching uranium to 20% as a positive move.[5] (It should be noted that in light of the American administration's efforts at rapprochement with Tehran, and its hints that it may recognize Iran's right to low-level uranium enrichment, Russia too has been attempting to strengthen its ties with Iran with a proposal of concessions that offers no less than the Americans are offering.)[6]

Each Side's Aim In Bypassing The 5+1 Talks

Iran needs to talk directly with the order to achieve its goal – recognition as a nuclear state, a status which follows from recognition of its right to enrich uranium on its soil. The U.S. is bypassing the 5+1 and talking directly with Iran in order to achieve its own goal – it seeks an historic reconciliation with Iran, or at the very least direct talks on a permanent basis. It should be emphasized that the American administration's goal, as indicated by its conduct in the negotiations, is not to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, but to limit its status as a nuclear power to the civilian domain, under strict international supervision, in order to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

At present, it is unclear whether the U.S. administration is dangling the option of recognizing Iran's right to enrich uranium at low levels as bait and will ultimately oppose it – or whether it is actually willing to allow it.

There are several reasons why even if the conditions for the American administration's proposal to Iran include a restriction stipulating low-level uranium enrichment only, and under tight oversight, it will eventually undermine the global nuclear order:

First, the American administration's proposal of such an arrangement disregards the fact that Iran is already fundamentally undermining the global nuclear order, both in its interpretation of the issue of who is entitled to possess nuclear weapons and of the conditions under which a country is entitled to enrich uranium.

Iran is opposed in principle to the division upon which the NPT is based, that is, between who may possess nuclear weapons and who may not, and in recent years Iranian officials have made statements on the concept of "nuclear weapons for none, nuclear energy for all."[7] Iran also is not following the directives of the reports of the IAEA, the agency tasked by the NPT with overseeing global nuclear activity, and has for years refused to cooperate with IAEA inspectors and has claimed that its reports and findings are politically biased – as stated in the Iranian letter of protest to the IAEA and IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano.

With regard to the findings against Iran in the IAEA's reports, according to the Iranian government, the IAEA is overstepping the bounds of the mandate it received to conduct inspections in Iran, and its reports serve political anti-Iran interests in the U.N. Security Council. Iran also interprets the articles of the NPT that concern countries' rights to conduct nuclear activity as it sees fit. This was expressed by Majlis speaker Ali Larijani during his visit to Serbia in early October 2013, when he 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."

Second, an agreement of this kind disregards the fact that Iran is already systematically violating its commitments under the NPT, in the matters of its failure to report on its construction of nuclear facilities, its failure to report on its nuclear activity, and also the suspicion that it is conducting prohibited military activity, as IAEA reports have noted. The NPT states that a country that is suspected of conducting prohibited military nuclear activity has forfeited its right to engage in any civilian nuclear activity of any kind.

Third, the proposed arrangement disregards the fact that Iran is currently unwilling to stop its violations, even for a single moment,[8] pending an arrangement: Iran is disregarding the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, which is the supreme international legal body that is responsible for global security; these resolutions call on Iran to immediately stop enriching uranium, halt construction at the Arak plutonium reactor, and open all its nuclear facilities for intrusive inspection. Iran's ostensible right to enrich uranium under the NPT has been revoked since 2006, by the passage of six binding Security Council resolutions ordering to it to suspend all activity connected to its uranium enrichment.

Fourth, such a proposed arrangement undermines the NPT itself, which in Articles 1 and 2 sets out preconditions and obligations regarding all countries' civilian consumer nuclear usage. Countries' rights to nuclear power, including enrichment activity – which are spelled out in the NPT's Article 4 – are conditional upon the upholding of the preconditions and obligations as set out in Articles 1 and 2 – among which is the condition that countries will not act to create nuclear weapons.

For these reasons, even if the American administration's proposal includes a restriction on lower-level uranium enrichment to only 3.5%-5%, in addition to very tight oversight, it will nevertheless lead to the undermining of the global nuclear order.

A decision by the Obama administration to pay for the longed-for historic reconciliation with recognition of a nuclear Iran that has no bomb – at least, not yet – will have far-reaching regional and international ramification.

The Implications Of Possible U.S. Recognition Of A Nuclear Iran Entitled To Low-Level Uranium Enrichment

On the international level, U.S. recognition of a nuclear Iran that includes the latter's right to enrich uranium to low levels on its soil could destabilize the global nuclear order that has been more or less maintained for decades by all countries, with the exception of a few that are not signatory to the NPT. If the U.S. makes such a move, many other countries would move to pursue their own independent nuclear ambitions.

On the regional level:

  1. The nuclearization of the Middle East, and the possibility of a nuclear arms race: The American administration's recognition of a nuclear Iran would necessarily lead to a nuclearization of the leading Sunni and other countries in the Middle East that have no faith in an American nuclear umbrella against Iran (see MEMRI reports on Egypt and Saudi Arabia on this topic).[9]
  2. The strengthening of the resistance axis – Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah – under Iran's leadership: This will come at the expense of former U.S. allies – the axis of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. U.S. recognition of a nuclear Iran would significantly reinforce the Shi'ite foci in the Middle East that fight Sunnis, for example Lebanon (Hizbullah), Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain.

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


[1] Evidence of the bilateral U.S.-Iran track can be seen in the following statements: Abbas Araqchi, head of the Iranian delegation to Geneva, said: "The aim of the bilateral talks [with the American delegation head Wendy Sherman] was to advance the negotiations. We wanted to examine issues that came up in [the 5+1] negotiations in bilateral talks that were more in-depth, detailed, and serious. If we feel that we must hold bilateral talks [with the Americans] in order to facilitate the negotiation track and to consult [with the Americans], then we will hold such talks, as we have in the past..." Al-Alam, October 20, 2013. The conservative Iranian daily Jaam-e Jam stated on October 17, 2013: "Obama must prevent the warmongers [i.e. Israel and his opponents in Congress] from spoiling the positive atmosphere that was achieved [during the meetings]."

[2] Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2013.

[3] Iranian Interior Minister Rahmani-Fazli said that it is the West that is demanding that the nuclear talks be secret, and that their content not be leaked. IRNA, Iran, October 21, 2013. The Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami, which is identified with Hashemi Rafsanjani, stated on October 21, 2013 that "the Iranian people are entitled to receive clear information regarding these talks, and to know the aim of the track that has been set and what price [Iran] must pay for it." The same day, Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who is identified with the opposite camp of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote to Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who are conducting the negotiations, "Pardon me, gentlemen, you are making a great mistake by maintaining the secrecy of the negotiations... The content of the Geneva talks cannot be the kind of thing [that remains secret] because the Geneva talks are held with the participation of the negotiating teams of the 5+1 countries, that is, the ones from whose eyes any secret matter must be kept... The explanation that 'the secrecy of the negotiations is a sign of their seriousness' sounds more like a joke than like a reasonable theory." Kayhan (Iran), October 21, 2013.

[4] Jomhouri-ye Eslami stated: "The [Western] media has reported recently that President Obama can overrule some of the sanctions, such as those concerning medical equipment, food, and inter-bank trade without Congressional approval... What is said in the U.S. on the unfreezing of frozen Iranian assets angers the Zionists. The unfreezing of these assets can be an effective step [because] it is considered one of the ways of removing the economic distress until the sanctions are lifted..." Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), October 21, 2013. Iranian Vice President Eshak Jahangiri said that billions of dollars of Iranian assets that are frozen in dozens of countries will be unfrozen soon and will serve as collateral to extend credit to the private sector. Ettela'at (Iran), October 21, 2013.

[5] 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." 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., September 9, 2013. For transcript see:

[6] See Iranian reports on the Russian initiative: Jomhouri-ye Eslami, Etemad (Iran), October 29, 2013.

[7] Iran held an international conference in April 2010 on the subject of "Nuclear Energy For All, Nuclear Weapons For None," with the participation of representatives from 60 countries. See also Kayhan, October 5, 2013: "Nuclear weapons for none, civilian use of nuclear technology for all is Iran's non-discriminatory slogan. The feet of the false Zionist regime are stuck because of this slogan, as are those of some Western regimes. If under the NPT enrichment is the right of all IAEA members, Iran insists on this right, and if it is prohibited to construct and possess a nuclear bomb, this ban must apply to all."

[8] Iranian Nuclear Energy Organization director Ali Akbar Salehi announced on October 30, 2013 that enriching uranium to 20% is continuing as usual, in response to Western reports that Iran had frozen enrichment to 20%., October 30, 2013.

Share this Report: