11/25/2014 02:44 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Failed Nuclear Talks Are Not Iran's Fault

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Nov. 24, the deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement between Iran and P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- came and went without the agreement.

What happened? Iran made major concessions. It was excessive demands by the U.S. and its allies that prevented the comprehensive agreement from materializing.

The original Geneva interim agreement expired last July, but both sides agreed to extend the deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement to Nov. 24. Now, a new deadline of June 30, 2015 has been set. Both sides said that much progress was made, but some difficult issues have remained unresolved.

The agreement would have created an entirely new dynamic for the war-torn Middle East. It would have ushered in a new era of cooperation between two old nemeses, Iran and the United States, to defeat their common enemy, the Islamic State.

Given the historic significance of the agreement, why is it that a breakthrough was not achieved?

Iran's Major Concessions

Several complex issues that had seemed unresolvable have actually been hammered out, but only because Iran was willing to negotiate with a spirit of compromise, of give and take.

The first concession concerned Iran's uranium enrichment facility built under a mountain in Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, 90 miles south of Tehran. The West, led by the United States, had demanded that Iran dismantle the facility altogether. The facility is neither suited for military purposes, nor for large-scale industrial use; it was built by Iran either as a bargaining chip, or to preserve its indigenous enrichment technology in case the large Natanz enrichment facility was destroyed by bombing, or both.

Abbas Araghchi, Iran's deputy foreign minister and a principal negotiator, has emphasized repeatedly and emphatically, "Iran would not agree to close any of its nuclear facility." Iran has agreed to convert the site to a nuclear research facility, representing a major concession.

A second concession involved the IR-40 heavy water nuclear reactor, under construction in Arak, 155 miles southwest of Tehran. When completed, it will replace Tehran Research Reactor, an almost 50-year-old reactor that produces medical isotopes for close to 1 million Iranian patients every year.

The West had demanded that Iran convert the IR-40 to a light-water reactor, due to the concerns that if the reactor, when it comes online, will produce plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons. But, Iran refused to go along because, first and foremost, all the work on the reactor has been done by the Iranian experts and thus the reactor is a source of national pride. Iran has already spent billions of dollars to design and begin constructing the reactor, but the West was not willing to share the cost of the reactor conversion to a light-water one.

On its own initiative, Iran has agreed to modify the design of the reactor so that it will produce much smaller amounts of plutonium. Iran also agreed not to build any reprocessing facility for separating the plutonium from the rest of the nuclear waste. This was again a major concession.

The third major concession by Iran was agreeing to stop enriching uranium at 19.75 percent (commonly referred to as 20 percent in the Western media, although the seemingly minor difference is actually quite important). After the West and the International Atomic Energy Agency refused to supply Iran with fuel for the TRR in 2009, Iran began producing the higher enriched uranium that the TRR uses as its fuel. Tehran agreed to stop producing the fuel, after stockpiling enough fuel for the remaining life of the old TRR. This was the third major concession by Iran.

The fourth major concession made by Iran is related to the issue of inspection of Iran's nuclear facilities by the IAEA. Although Iran had lived up to its obligations under its original Safeguards Agreement with the agency signed in 1974, the IAEA under its Director-General Yukiya Amano, who has completely politicized the agency that has contributed to the complexities of reaching the comprehensive agreement, has been insisting that Iran implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol of the SG Agreement, which Iran signed in 2003 and, without ratification by its parliament, implemented voluntarily until February 2006.

Iran set aside the Additional Protocol after the European Union reneged on its promises made to Iran in the Sa'dabad Declaration of October 2003 and the Paris Agreement of November 2004. Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement in November 2013, according to which Iran allows much more frequent and intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities, way beyond its legal obligations under its SG Agreement. Since then, the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed that Iran has lived up to its obligations.

The U.S. Excessive Demands

Three of the remaining issues concern the number of centrifuges that Iran gets to keep over the duration of the agreement, the duration of the comprehensive agreement and the mechanism by which the crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S. and its allies would be lifted.

In fact, agreeing to limit the number of its centrifuges for the duration of the agreement is yet another significant, but unacknowledged, concession by Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran's SG Agreement with the IAEA places no restriction on the number of centrifuges that Iran can have.

The issue of the number of centrifuges, NoC, is also mostly superficial. The efficiency of a uranium enrichment program is not measured by the NoC, rather by the Separative Work Units count, which is essentially the effort (energy, for example) used in separating a certain amount of mass (of, say, uranium 235 and 238) into a product (uranium 235, used as nuclear fuel and for bomb making if enriched to 90 percent or higher) and "waste" and, hence, measures the efficiency of the centrifuges. So, a nation can have a relatively small number of highly efficient centrifuges and still be able to produce large quantities of enriched uranium.

The number and efficiency of the centrifuges are related to the question of the "breakout" time -- the time that Iran would need, if it leaves the NPT, expels the IAEA inspectors, and begins a race to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make one crude nuclear weapon. Aside from the fact that even if Iran did leave the NPT and did succeed at all the stages, it would be able to produce only a crude nuclear device, not a nuclear warhead, as there is no evidence that Iran actually possesses the know-how for miniaturizing a nuclear bomb to be carried by its missiles. The breakout time depends on a variety of factors, only one of which is the number of the centrifuges. But, the U.S. insisted that Iran must limit the number of its centrifuges to about 4,500, roughly half of the centrifuges that are currently spinning and producing low-enriched uranium in Iran. That would supposedly give the West about a year if Iran left the NPT and began a race towards a nuclear device or bomb. Iran did not accept the proposal, and presented its own study of the breakout time, indicating that it was at least three years.

The second unresolved issue is the duration of the comprehensive agreement. The U.S. began the negotiations by demanding a 20 year agreement. But, it became abundantly clear that it would be a total political suicide for the administration of Iran's moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, to accept such a long-term agreement. Tehran's hardliners would have overthrown his government by parliamentary maneuvering. Iran indicated that a seven-year agreement is acceptable, moving from its original position of 1-3 years, but the U.S. insisted that the duration must be a "double digit" number, meaning at least 10 years.

From Iran's view, the most important issue is the lifting of the economic sanctions. And, here is an important fact: Even if Iran agrees to the U.S. proposal, the Obama administration will not be able to cancel its crippling economic sanctions against Iran, because Congress will block that. It has promised only gradual suspension of some the sanctions, which does not require congressional consent. In effect, the U.S. wanted Iran to give up its hard won "facts on the ground" in return for gradual suspension of only some of the sanctions. No nation would agree to such one-sided demands, let alone Iran, a nation that has lived with U.S. economic sanctions for over three decades.

At a symposium in Washington on Oct. 23, Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for policy who leads the U.S. negotiation team with Iran, asserted that, "We hope the leaders in Tehran will agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that this program will be exclusively peaceful. If that does not happen, the responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran."

The U.S., Not Iran, Is to Blame

Given all the concessions that Iran has made, given U.S. excessive demands on Iran, and given the fact that, in effect, the U.S. is trying to impose a new and illegal interpretation of Iran's obligations under the NPT and its SG Agreement and the meaning of "peaceful nuclear program," it is the U.S. that must be blamed for the failure of the negotiations, not Iran.

Iran's Nuclear Sites