On Friday, the so-called P5+1 nations, the US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany, began another phase of diplomatic negotiations with Iran over the future of its nuclear programme. The talks, hosted in Istanbul by the Turkish government, are aimed at making some headway in resolving an issue that has dominated the region for several years. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is solely for civilian use; the permanent members of the UN security council, the US and UK in particular, are highly sceptical of this claim, alleging that Iran is developing a clandestine weapons programme.
At this point, expectations are not high, with one diplomat suggesting that ‘no-one’s expecting any great shift.’ The most likely solution to the impasse is a uranium exchange agreement, similar to the one agreed to by Turkey, Brazil and Iran last May, and then subsequently vetoed by the US. The arrangement would involve the transfer of Iran’s Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) stocks to a neutral country while receiving nuclear fuel for a research reactor in return. Because the nuclear fuel would have been refined to a level below weapons grade, and the IAEA would have inspection rights, the international community would be provided with some assurance that the material was not being diverted to a weapons programme.
The negotiations have begun on the same day that a Wikileaks cable revealed Western estimates of Iran’s capabilities. Key points include the fact that Russia is adamantly against the use of Iranian-refined Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) at the Bushehr nuclear plant, which was built with Russian assistance. Also, Iran now does possess the ability to produce HEU at a time of its own choosing. Importantly, Iran is close to exhuating its supply of South African yellow cake, bought in the 1980s. Due to technical problems, outdated equipment and successful Western sabotage attempts, the number of centrifuges active in the Natanz refinery has been reduced from 11,000 to 4,000. If Iran were to be pursuing a weapons programme, they would thus most likely be able to manufacture fewer than nineteen warheads.
The openSecurity verdict: In view of the common ground between the two sides, it is depressing that expectations are so low for this weekend’s meeting at Istanbul. The defiance of the Iranian regime is, to an extent, understandable. No government would feel conciliatory after recent revelations that a US-Israel computer virus had been used to intentionally sabotage a key national development project. This is combined with Iran’s feelings of victimisation at the hands of the 1960 non-proliferation treaty, and in particular the fact that key US allies like India are apprently rewarded by US technical aid after not signing it, whereas signatories such as Iran are threatened with military force.
From the US side, it should be recognised that a fuel transfer deal had already been agreed in principle before the US vetoed it. Such a transfer agreement remains the most likely solution to the impasse. Thus US state department spokesman Mark Toner was not helpful when he suggested that such an agreement would have to reflect Iranian technical progress over recent months. IAEA inspections have already been agreed to, the transfer of the vast majority of the necessary raw material, LEU, outside of the country has already been agreed to. Hectoring Iran over its technical progress smacks of bad faith and disingenuousness.
Solving the Iranian nuclear standoff, if accompanied by a broader rapprochement between it and the US, would do a great deal to calm tensions in the middle east. If either side lets this chance at success pass by due to reasons of national pride and diplomatic pique, they will have to bear what may be severe consequences for such myopia.
US Pressure on China lead to Korea breakthrough
It has been reported that a threat by US President Barak Obama to China was key in Beijing’s decision to pressure its communist ally to re-engage with diplomatic talks aiming to bring Pyongyang in from the cold. On Thursday the DPRK accepted the conditions for negotiations, proposed by Seoul, which could happen as early as February. Such dialogue could form the basis for a resumption of aid from South to North, a programme that was curtailed drastically after the election of the hardliner Lee Myungbak to power in South Korea and border crises in recent years. It could also pave the way for Pyongyang’s re-enagement with the six-party talks, the objective of which is to reintegrate the isolated communist state into the international community.
Although it has already been revealed by US embassy cables released by Wikileaks that Beijing had begun to tire of its North Korean ally’s intransigence, a central role was apprently played by President Obama. Apparently Obama explicitly threatened China that, if North Korea was not reigned in, the US would redeploy its forces within Asia. Although the long term impact of such confrontational tactics can only be guessed at, for the time being it certainly seemes to have succeeded in restarting diplomacy on the peninsula.
South Sudan set to overwhelmingly vote to secede from the North
Preliminary results from voting in the South Sudanese independence referendum have revealed, with 80% of the votes from the south counted and 100% from other areas, that nearly 99% of voters (98.6%) have opted for independence. The referendum was a key plank in the 2005 Naivasha agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army / Movement (SPLA/M). If the decision is confirmed, it will then throw the spotlight on Khartoum and its reaction. Many have speculated that, for reasons of tribal identity and the fact that 80% of Sudan’s oil is based in the south, secession could lead to a civil war. Southern independence advocates have been careful to play down such speculation, however. They note that oil infrastructure in the south is still underdeveloped, and until it is improved oil will conitnue to be shipped to the north for refining.