International talks over Iran’s nuclear program ended on Wednesday, with no breakthrough but a large amount of optimism about whether Iran would be willing to officially implement a document that would grant wide-ranging inspection capabilities to the international community.
The negotiations over the last two days took place between Iran and the P5+1 — France, China, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and United States — over how to finally end the crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program. The Islamic Republic has for over a decade insisted that its uranium enriching facilities are for peaceful purposes only; the international community meanwhile remains skeptical that there are no military dimensions to the program. While Western intelligence agencies believe Iran has not decided on whether to pursue a nuclear weapon, the continued spinning of centrifuges has led to a strong international coalition — partly assembled by President Obama — placing sanctions on Iran that are currently crippling its economy.
This week’s talks in Geneva have focused on a new proposal that Iran has brought to the table to counter a previous offer from the P5+1. Details of the plan have been sparse thus far, but reports indicate that it was well-received among the negotiating coalition, following a one-hour Powerpoint presentation from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Among the possible ways under discussion for ensuring that Iran is abiding by any concessions it agrees to is for Iran to accede to what’s known as an “Additional Protocol” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Under the NPT, which Iran has signed and ratified, the International Atomic Energy Agency has the authority to monitor its nuclear sites that have been declared. In its quarterly reports, the body has determined that it is unable to verify that there is no military element to Iran’s program, but has concluded that none of its declared nuclear material has been diverted towards such a purpose. Tehran acceding to an Additional Protocol would possibly help alleviate the IAEA’s concerns in the aftermath of any deal that allows Iran’s enrichment to continue at lower levels than at present.
The ratification of an Additional Protocol would be important as it would allow for short-notice inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. “The Protocol provides for IAEA inspectors to have ‘complementary’ access to assure the absence of undeclared nuclear material or to resolve questions or inconsistencies in the information a State has provided about its nuclear activities,” according to the IAEA’s factsheet. “Advance notice in most cases is at least 24 hours. The advance notice is shorter – at least two hours – for access to any place on a site that is sought in conjunction with design information verification or ad hoc or routine inspections at that site.”
In addition, the 1997 model that all Additional Protocols stem from requires an increase in just what sorts of materials and locations a state has to declare and allow to be inspected. This includes, according to the Arms Control Association, providing an “‘expanded declaration’ on a broad array of nuclear-related activities, such as ‘nuclear fuel cycle-related research and development activities—not involving nuclear materials’ and ‘the location, operational status and the estimated annual production’ of uranium mines and thorium concentration plants.” It also allows pre-approved access to any facility that the IAEA specifies, allowing the inspectors to take environmental samples from both declared and undeclared sites.
According to Lobe Log’s Jasmine Ramsey, Iran isn’t ready to open itself up to these snap inspections immediately, and instead views the Additional Protocol as a possible last step in the year-long process it has proposed to verify its enrichment activities remain non-military in nature. “The Additional Protocol is a part of the endgame,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the Inter Press Service. “It’s on the table, but not for the time being, it’s a part of the final step,” he said.
Nearly 150 countries have currently signed an Additional Protocol with the IAEA, with Iran and 23 others having not yet placed it into force. Iran signed its version in 2003, but to date has not ratified the document. Despite that, it voluntarily complied with the documents terms until 2006, after the IAEA’s Board of Governors chose to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for noncompliance.
While ratification of the Additional Protocol would not be a silver bullet, the fact that negotiators are now focusing on what an end result could possibly look like is an encouraging development. “We know we have to look for a first step,” Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said on Wednesday after talks had concluded. “We also have to be extremely clear going forward on what we consider to be the last step.” Ashton and Zarif issued their first joint statement at the end of the discussions, in which they praised the “substantive and forward looking negotiations” and announced the next round of talks in Geneva on November 7 and 8.