Iran nuclear talks to be held in Turkey


On April 14, 2012, there will be a new round of talks held in Istanbul, Turkey regarding Iranian’s nuclear program.   There is guarded optimism about the talks, but there is also concern that an additional demand stated by the US last weekend may make upcoming negotiations more difficult.

1.  General issue

Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has the right under international law to enrich uranium for commercial and research purposes.   However, enriching uranium can also be used for building a nuclear weapon, and some Western countries suspect that this is the true purpose of Iran’s nuclear program.   The talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany) will begin Saturday in Turkey in order to ease tensions regarding this program.

2.   Iranian compromise on enrichment level

According to a report from CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/09/world/meast/iran-nuclear-talks/index.html), Iran has suggested it is willing to compromise regarding the amount and the level of uranium enrichment.

The level of enrichment of natural uranium for the purpose of nuclear power is typically between 3-5% 235U (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/enrichment.html); this is referred to as low-enriched uranium or LEU.   Uranium used in nuclear weapons contained 85% or more 235U, and this is referred to as highly enriched uranium or HEU.   The problem is that Iran is enriching uranium to a 20% concentration of 235U.   This 20% level just so happens to be the dividing line between LEU and HEU, and this ambiguity has contributed to the international concern about the true motives of Iran’s program.

Iran has said it is willing to reduce the level of enrichment from 20% to 3.5%, which would definitely put its uranium in the LEU category, and perhaps reduce that concern.

3.  US asks for dismantling of nuclear enrichment facility

However, the Obama administration added an additional demand that Iran immediately close and ultimately dismantle Iran’s uranium-enrichment facility at Fordo (http://ow.ly/afbue), according to an article on April 7th in the New York Times.  Paul Pillar, in his April 8 blog post at the National Interest called “Hostages in Iran” (http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/hostages-iran-6749) says that the reason why the US is making this request is because this new facility is relatively invulnerable to air attack, which is presumably why the Iranians placed it there.  According to Paul Pillar, in making a demand which effectively would make Iran more vulnerable to airstrikes by Israel, the US has taken a tougher bargaining position before the commencement of negotiations.

What are the possibilities of the negotiations succeeding given this additional hurdle to be overcome?    If Iran agrees to close the facility in Fordo, the nuclear facilities in central Iran in Natanz have more than enough capacity to keep the nuclear program going, so Iran might agree to the dismantling of the Fordo nuclear enrichment facility in addition to its agreeing to limit its level of uranium enrichment to 3.5%.   However, it would probably do so only if there was an agreement on dismantling some of the sanctions that Iran faces from the West, according to an analysis by Brian Murphy in the Associated Press (http://ow.ly/afxCh).

A complete dismantlement of the nuclear enrichment program would not be acceptable to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini-Khamenei and the clerical conservatives, who are solidly behind the nuclear program (see Economist Intelligence Unit Webinar on Iran sanctions, summarized in https://4squareviews.com/2012/04/09/iran-sanctions-just-right-or-a-step-too-far/).

4.  Guarded optimism

The world seems to be guardedly optimistic about the upcoming negotiations.  This can be seen reflected in the price of a barrel of crude oil, which according to this Associated Press article (http://www.wsbtv.com/news/ap/energy/oil-climbs-above-102/nMW7j/) has jumped from $75 in October to a high of $110 last month based on concerns by investors regarding a possible military attack on Iran by Israel.   Optimism regarding the talks has caused the price of crude oil to slide to $104, and “If negotiations were to succeed and some acceptable compromise achieved, the energy markets would breathe a collective sigh of relief and prices would decline,” said Richard Soultanian of NUS Consulting in that same AP article.

Of course, if the negotiations do not succeed, the prices will increase beyond the $110 peak that occurred in March.   So it is important to pay close attention to the upcoming talks this weekend, which are most likely the opening bid in negotiations that may last for months.

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