The future of Iran’s nuclear program, and its economy, are on the table as its government opened a new and likely difficult phase of negotiations with the United Nations contact group Tuesday morning in Vienna. The talks follow an interim agreement reached late last year that limited parts of Iran's nuclear program.
The historic agreement, reached in November, provided Iran with marginal sanctions relief in return for limits on some of the most worrisome aspects of its nuclear program.
But that was only an interim step, designed to last six months, perhaps a year, with the aim of negotiating more significant changes in the nuclear program in exchange for, potentially, lifting all the international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
That process starts Tuesday in Vienna, when Iranian negotiators sit down with officials from the five permanent Security Council members and Germany, led by the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Tricky negotiations loom
Experts say it will be a lengthy effort and even more difficult than last year’s talks. To get full sanctions relief, Iran will have to agree to deep and permanent cuts to its nuclear program to guarantee that it is not in a position to build a nuclear bomb.
Iran says it does not want a bomb, but the U.N. Security Council, and nuclear experts, are concerned that some aspects of its program already have brought it close to being able to build one.
Nuclear policy expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said one key question is whether Iran’s top leaders will accept such limits on a program they have made a key element of Iranian national pride, while denying that it has anything to do with nuclear weapons.
“The biggest stumbling block may be the extent to which the Iranians are willing to disclose sensitive aspects of the nuclear program, which point in the direction of having done research and development on nuclear weapons,” said Hibbs.
In addition, there are a lot of technical issues related to uranium enrichment and plutonium production, and various facilities with differing capabilities. On the other side, there is a complex web of international sanctions, as well as bilateral sanctions by some countries, including the United States.
A senior U.S. official said Monday the talks will be “complicated, difficult and lengthy,” with high stakes. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called for “deliberate, concentrated” talks, and said it is as likely they will fail as succeed.
For now, expectations are low. But the U.S. official noted that so far implementation of the interim agreement is going smoothly, adding it is now routine for U.S. and Iranian officials to meet, and to communicate by phone and e-mail, what the official called a “new world” from just a few months ago.
Any accord will need a strong inspection and enforcement mechanism, expected to be led by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which is headquartered in Vienna.
Hibbs said inspections are particularly important because of Iran’s history with the IAEA.
“There was a period of time for about two decades when Iran systematically deceived the International Atomic Energy Agency and the rest of the world about the scope of its nuclear program. So they have to come clean with essential activities that they carried out in the past,” he said.
The IAEA is conducting parallel talks with Iran to get a better understanding of its nuclear program.
Experts say these talks are likely to continue, on and off, for the full six months of the interim agreement, and perhaps for six additional months, if the two sides agree.
At the end of the process there could be an Iran that the world is confident will remain nuclear weapons-free, and that will be able to develop its economy without sanctions and pursue its international policy without stigma. The alternative is more sanctions, more isolation and, potentially, a nuclear-armed Iran.