The ink on the ballots cast for Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani hasn’t even dried yet and we’re already witnessing the dawning of a
brand new perhaps not-so-new Iran. Yesterday, in his first public address, Rowhani told the world that Iran wants to heal its rift with the West and in the same speech also said that Iran is never going to suspend its uranium enrichment.
This morning, Russia’s foreign minister dropped what seemed to be a bombshell on behalf of his Iranian allies when he told a Kuwaiti news outlet that Iran is now willing to stop its enriching of uranium to 20 percent.
In an interview with the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA that was released by the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday, Sergey Lavrov said that “for the first time in many years” there are encouraging signs in international efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute.
He said Iran has confirmed that it is ready to halt production of uranium enriched to 20 percent. He did not give details, but said the sextet of international negotiators should make “substantial reciprocal steps.”
Those reciprocal steps? A “step-by-step halting and cancellation of sanctions” including the ones put together by the United Nations Security Council and those put together unilaterally by countries.
This seems like a strange way to negotiate, but let’s indulge this for a minute. Iran’s abjuring of its 20-percent enrichment has been a long sought concession from the West. In theory, the next step would nuclear talks and a solution. But in his speech yesterday, Rowhani made it clear that the United States must recognize Iran’s nuclear rights for any talks to begin. Here’s the problem: Coupling the drop of Iran’s 20-percent enrichment with an international acceptance of Iran’s nuclear rights does not a solution make.
Earlier this year in the Washington Post, Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations outlined how this specific part of the nuclear negotiation dance does not provide the detente ostensibly sought by either side.
Iran’s insistence on recognition of its enrichment rights is a ploy designed to provide its nuclear weapons ambitions with a veneer of legality.
To entice such concessions from the West, Iranian officials cleverly dangle the possibility of addressing an issue that is not essential to Tehran’s nuclear weapons objectives: the production of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran’s medium-grade enrichment is a dangerous escalation of the crisis, as it brings the material much closer to weapons-grade quality. Western powers would be judicious to focus on stopping it. But prolonged negotiations over this narrow issue and any concessions on Iran’s “right to enrich” in order to obtain that suspension would fall into Tehran’s trap of hampering a U.S. or Israeli military option.
In other words, if this concession were to lead to international acceptance of Iran’s nuclear rights then Iran could still build a weapons program and the international community would have a much harder time taking action against an illicit nuclear program that it no longer calls illicit.