FPI Fact Sheet: The False Promise of Negotiations over Iran’s Nuclear Program

April 12, 2012

For nearly a decade, the United States and its international partners have used diplomacy and sanctions in an effort to persuade Iran to halt its development of nuclear weapons-making capability.  Iran, however, has consistently refused to abide by its commitments and obligations to the international community.  Now Israel—which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to “wipe off the map”—is warning that Iran will soon enter a “zone of immunity,” a technical state in which it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an Israeli military strike to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.  Nonetheless, President Obama said in March 2012 that he believes “there is still time and space to pursue a diplomatic solution”. 

Iran is set to hold a new round of negotiations over its controversial nuclear program with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany on April 14.  A careful reading of the history of nuclear diplomacy with Iran, however, provides little reason for optimism.  Iranian leaders not only have repeatedly used negotiations to buy time as they steadily improve their capability to make nuclear weapons on increasingly shorter notice—but will almost certainly do so again with the planned talks in Istanbul.

Iran’s Continued Defiance of the International Community

Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear program was first made public in 2002.  In the decade since, the United States and its European allies  have offered Iran a wide variety of inducements for halting uranium enrichment and other activities that bring it closer to nuclear weapons capability.  Yet at every turn, the international community has been repeatedly and systematically rebuffed by the Iranian regime.  Despite global condemnation, increased isolation, and international sanctions, the Islamic Republic continues to use negotiations to further the development of its rogue nuclear program.

  • Iran Rebuffs Diplomacy by the EU-3 (2003-2005).  Seeking to avoid sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, Iran began negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany (known collectively as the EU-3) and agreed in October 2003 to “voluntarily suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency],” and in 2004, Tehran agreed to enter into negotiations with the EU-3.  The following month, on November 10, 2003, the IAEA declared that Iran had agreed to “a policy of full disclosure and had decided to provide the Agency with a full picture of all of its nuclear activities.” 

Over the next two years, Iran and the EU-3 exchanged numerous proposals, including economic incentives, to entice the Iranian regime.  No agreement was reached, and in 2005, evidence undermining Iran’s pledge to halt uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities began to emerge.  Finally, on February 4, 2006, the IAEA Board of Governors officially referred Iran’s continued noncompliance to the U.N. Security Council.

  • Iran Rebuffs Diplomacy by the P5-Plus-1 (2006-2007). In an effort to salvage nuclear diplomacy with Iran, the United States and other world powers joined the EU-3’s negotiations.  In mid-2006, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (known collectively as the P5-Plus-1) proposed a comprehensive long-term agreement that mirrored the EU-3’s earlier proposal, but also offered to jointly build light water nuclear reactors (LWRs) with Iran, and strong economic cooperation on civil aviation, telecommunications, and other sectors.  However, Iran rejected the P5-Plus-1’s proposal.
  • Iran Rebuffs the IAEA Work Plan (2007-2008).  In a surprise move, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei worked with Iran in mid-2007 to create a so-called “Work Plan” to address the international community’s “outstanding concerns” regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  ElBaradei claimed the IAEA Work Plan would provide a “litmus test” for Iran to come clean about its nuclear intentions, but it effectively undermined the U.N. Security Council’s position of requiring Iran to suspend uranium enrichment as a confidence-building measure. 

Iran, however, refused to answer the IAEA’s questions about activities related to uranium conversion, the testing of high-explosives relevant to detonating a nuclear warhead, and research relevant to delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons.  In June 2008, El Baradei conceded to the IAEA Board of Governors that while the IAEA Work Plan had clarified certain concerns about Iran, it had failed to make progress on “the cluster of allegations and Secretariat questions relevant to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”  Although efforts to implement the IAEA Work Plan would continue for several years, Iran would consistently refuse to provide the level of transparency and information necessary to end concerns about the military dimensions of its nuclear program.

  • Iran Again Rebuffs Diplomacy by the P5-Plus-1 (2008).  As the IAEA Work Plan began to stall in June 2008, the P5-Plus-1 offered Iran a revised version of its mid-2006 comprehensive long-term agreement that added financial assistance for Iran’s energy programs, the promise of fully normalizing economic and trade relations, support for Iran’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization (WTO), and other incentives.  Negotiations in Geneva began soon thereafter, but effectively broke down when Iran’s various counterproposals ignored any substantial concessions on its controversial nuclear activities.  Speaking days before the deadline set by world powers for Iran's reply, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, defiantly declared that Iran would “continue with its path” of nuclear development. 
  • Iran Rebuffs “Fuel Swap” Proposals (2009-2010).  After taking office, President Obama sought to reinvigorate nuclear diplomacy with Iran, urging “better relations” through a recorded message to the Iranian people and government in March 2009, and letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in May and September 2009.  The President’s desire for “better relations” with the Iranian regime apparently led him to keep the United States on the sidelines as mass anti-regime protests erupted throughout Iran in June 2009, leading the regime to launch violent and bloody crackdown on the opposition.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration sought to advance nuclear diplomacy with Iran by proposing a “fuel swap” agreement in which Iran would receive a special form of enriched uranium fuel for its research reactor to produce medical isotopes, if it shipped the majority of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) to a neutral third-country.  In October 2009, Iran tentatively agreed to the “fuel swap” plan during a meeting in Geneva, and the P5-Plus-1 subsequently offered incentives to facilitate the agreement.  However, Iran refused to definitively accept the plan, and then offered counterproposals that eroded or negated the plan’s confidence-building measures.  By February 2010, Iran began to further enrich its own low enriched uranium fuel to provocative levels.

Nuclear Progress and Future Negotiations

Iran’s track record indicates the regime is more interested in acquiring nuclear capabilities than negotiating with the international community in good faith.  For nearly ten years, Tehran has used the mirage of on-again off-again negotiations with the United States, the P5-Plus-1, and the EU-3, to further develop its secretive nuclear program, with spectacular results.  As the IAEA reported on November 8, 2011:

“[T]he Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

“The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

The following graph, courtesy of the Bipartisan Policy Center, illustrates Iran’s continued accumulation of low-enriched uranium over the past three and a half years:

Proponents of negotiations argue that the Iranian regime can be coerced into negotiating an agreement with the United States and the world community.   But if the Iranian regime were actually pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful means, it would have struck a deal already, or taken positive steps to alleviate the concerns of the international community.  Instead, the regime continues to not cooperate with the IAEA and refuses to grant international inspectors access to all requested nuclear facilities. Rather than rejoin the international community, Tehran has made the conscious decision to sacrifice its domestic economy and remain isolated. 

However, the Obama administration continues to ignore these lessons.  On March 6, 2012, President Obama told reporters that “We’re now seeing noises about them returning to the negotiating table,” as if arriving at discussions was a goal in itself.  While it may be comforting for anti-war politicians and pundits to place their faith in the diplomatic process, it must ultimately be understood that diplomacy without means of coercion is folly when confronting rogue regimes.  While the multilateral sanctions regime against Iran is exacting a toll on Iran, the leadership remains as committed as ever to obtaining a nuclear weapon.  As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently testified:

“Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses.”

Recent evidence and testimony should force the United States to reconsider reentering endless negotiations with the Iranian regime.  Simply put, the international community is running out of time before Tehran reaches the nuclear threshold.

Conclusion: The False Promise of Nuclear Diplomacy

As Iran’s controversial nuclear program approaches the “zone of immunity,” the United States should work, individually and with like-minded nations, to dramatically increase the pressure on Iran by implementing all possible sanctions.  Attempts by either President Obama or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to water down sanctions will not adequately increase pressure against the Iranian regime.  An effective strategy towards Tehran will also require the United States to make clear that a nuclear Iran is truly unacceptable and that if necessary, military action will be used to prevent that nightmare scenario.

Certainly, when one recognizes that the United States and international community have repeatedly offered Iran substantive and beneficial economic assistance over the past decade, only to be rebuffed, then one can only conclude that the Iranian leadership is simply uninterested in negotiating away their ability to produce a nuclear weapon.

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