Khamenei douses hopes for nuclear talks

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

He is a mad mullah after all – mad meaning angry, that is. Following the positive notes sounded by US Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich last week, it did not take long for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to quash any optimism over the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the international community. These are scheduled to take place in Almaty on 26 February.

In a speech on 7 February, Khamenei ruled out holding bilateral talks with America on his country’s controversial nuclear programme so long as Washington continued pressure tactics. He claimed the US was proposing talks while ‘pointing a gun at Iran’, adding that: ‘Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America [but] negotiations will not solve the problems.’

Khamenei is understandably angry at the US (and Europe) for sanctions that last year halved Iran’s oil revenues and just got tighter. Since 6 February, Iran has no longer been able to repatriate earnings from oil sales; all proceeds must be spent on purchases from the country of sale or the foreign banks involved will lose access to the US market.

It is probably no coincidence that not long before this latest round of sanctions kicked in, Iran hit back by saying it would install over 3,000 more modern centrifuges at its underground uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. I told media outlets that installing the IR-2m models could be a most unfortunate game changer, depending on how many are actually employed, because the increased capacity would shorten the timeline for Iran to be able to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Whether Iran has enough good quality carbon fibre for the IR-2m rotors and maraging steel for the bellows for 3,000 centrifuges is unknown. Also uncertain is how efficient the new models will actually be. Some experts predict the IR-2m output is about 4–5 times greater than the IR-1 models currently employed at Natanz. I recently spoke with government experts, however, who think the efficiency gain may only be 2–3 times. They note that the real game changer will be if Iran uses the new models for production of 20% enriched uranium at its facility at Fordow.

Khamenei is also angry, again, at Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last week blatantly breached the Supreme Leader’s order to stop squabbling with his political rivals in public. Khamenei’s condemnation of ‘naïve people’ who want to negotiate with America was an obvious swipe at his president. In an odd role reversal, Ahmadinejad, who is still regarded as a bête noire throughout the Western world, portrays himself domestically as a champion of engagement and compromise. He has no power to effect or implement any compromises, however, and probably offers deals to imply that he is not responsible for the economic trouble that hard-line nuclear policies have invited.

I reviewed some of these political dynamics in a written submission to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee in advance of a 5 February evidence session on Iran’s nuclear programme. At the hearing, the well-prepared committee members pressed me and my fellow ‘witnesses’ (Professor Ali Ansari, Dr Trita Parsi and Shashank Joshi) on how to break the impasse with Iran. My answer was that a breakthrough will require Iran to come to the table in a transactional mood, something it has so far not been ready for.

In contrast to North Korea, which however difficult, is at least willing to negotiate, Iran refuses to make any counter-offer other than the demand it tabled at talks last summer that all sanctions be lifted and its ‘right’ to enrichment be recognised, in exchange for which it would be willing to suspend 20% enrichment but nothing else. Its enriched uranium stockpile and production capabilities would remain in place, and enrichment to 5% would continue. If Iran sticks to this maximalist position, the talks will not become negotiations.

Some commentators say Khamenei has to know in advance the benefits Iran would get from negotiating and that these benefits have to meet Iran’s bottom line on sanctions relief and enrichment rights. In effect, such advice would have the US, UK and their allies give in to Iran from the start. History, however, has not been kind to policies of appeasement.

I do agree that Iran has to be given reason to believe that such benefits are possible if negotiations ensue. Any solution will have to include sanctions relief and accepting some degree of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. But concessions must be mutual, and be a part of the negotiations, not preconditions for real engagement.

I see little prospect that the talks in Almaty with the E3+3 will produce any compromises. Iran’s political circumstances will not be conducive to meaningful concessions until a new president takes power in August, and even then it will be very difficult. For now, the best one can hope for is that the parties go beyond opening positions in a spirit of give and take. I feel certain that the E3+3 negotiators will be ready to discuss credible offers, if only Iran is ready.


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