What Iran’s stance on centrifuges means for the nuke deal

In this phase, the different interpretations and conceptions of the nuclear deal will surface

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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The opening round of negotiations between Iran and the six world powers on a comprehensive agreement to end the decades-long dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing and ending economic sanctions is expected to take place in New York in February rather than Geneva, according to reports by Western and Iranian officials this week.

This move away from Geneva— where the interim nuclear deal was reached and where three rounds of nuclear talks were carried out— to New York marks the diplomatic thaw between the Obama administration and the Iranian government. New York will be the location where the most difficult phase of the nuclear negations will be discussed, with the prospect of turning the provisional nuclear deal into a permanent one.

It is also argued that the United States was selected as the location for the meeting—particularly New York with its significant United Nations presence— in order to avoid the back-and-forth between the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the European Union’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton over the date and location. Ashton leads the international diplomatic bloc negotiating with Iran.

“New York - agreed to by EU High Representative [Catherine] Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif - has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The location might have also shifted to the United States because of requests from both the Obama administration and Rowhani’s government. It was in New York where Zarif met face-to-face with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from all six powers. After many years, the platform was provided for the first real breakthrough in nuclear talks, according to diplomats. On the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, President Barack Obama and Iran’s new President Hassan Rowhani completed the famous, unprecedented 15-minute phone call.

Luring investors back: sanctions reliefs being implemented

As the diplomatic talks between Iran and the P5+1(the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) continue, with the nuclear agreement signed in November taking effect on Jan. 20, Iran has received crucial relief in international sanctions.

For example, last week the United States and the European Union started easing sanctions on Iran regarding oil exports, trade in automotive services and precious metals. The U.S. is also releasing approximately $550 million to Iran every month as part of the deal.

Iranian leaders are very unlikely to destroy a large amount of their centrifuges

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Taking the political opportunity, Rowhani has also recently used the World Economic Forum Davos, the annual gathering of world and leaders, as a platform to lure back foreign investment.

This incident is not something new to Iran’s politics, with the same processes in action when former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the reformists were in power.

First, Khatami agreed to halt some of the enrichment of uranium and allowed some United Nations inspections in exchange for sanctions relief as part of an effort to negotiate a comprehensive and final nuclear deal. Later, he used Davos to lure foreign investors and oil companies. A few months after that, when many reformist candidates were disqualified in Iran’s parliamentary election under Khatami’s administration, the nuclear deal collapsed.

Will Iran and the P5+1 reach a comprehensive deal in New York?

In this phase, the different interpretations and conceptions of the nuclear deal will surface. Beside the minor details and nuances, there are two crucial issues that must be tackled by the P5+1 and Iran.

First of all, the P5+1’s perception of a final deal is that Iranian leaders will scale back on some of their advanced centrifuges and dismantle some of their nuclear structures, such as the plutonium and heavy water reactor in Arak.

Reaching a comprehensive deal while Iran maintains its nuclear infrastructure and centrifuges— with approximately 18,000 installed or being fed with UF6— will retain Tehran’s capability to re-initiate the spinning and enriching of high levels of uranium at any time. According to the reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) describing Iran’s uranium stockpile by utilizing the approximately 9,000 first-generation centrifuges operating in Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, Iran could theoretically produce enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel a single nuclear warhead. As a result, the P5+1’s interpretation of the nuclear deal is that Tehran will have to scale back or destroy some of its centrifuges.

What is Tehran’s interpretation or stand?

If Iran accepts to destroy its centrifuges and dismantle some in controversial nuclear sites like in Arak, a permanent deal is possible. Until recently, Tehran’s position has not been clear on this issue. Rowhani and other Iranian leaders only insisted that they have the rights to enrich uranium, have been ambiguous about scaling back.

Yet Iran’s position became clear in Rowhani’s sideline interview at the World Economic Forum with Fareed Zakaria of CNN. When he was asked about Iran’s stance on destroying the centrifuges, Rowhani clearly responded that there would be no destruction of existing centrifuges. He repeated this statement twice. “Under any circumstances,” Rowhani said. Rowhani’s message was a departure from the more conciliatory tone of Javad Zarif.

If Iran keeps its position in line Rowhani’s response, and if the West does not reconcile on this conception, the gap between Tehran and the West will be too deep to bridge. Iranian leaders are very unlikely to destroy a large amount of their centrifuges. One possibility is that, due to the eagerness of the West to reach a permanent deal and because of the concern over taking other routes rather than diplomacy, the West might change its position in the last moments and sign a permanent nuclear deal with Iran, while accepting Iran’s existing number of centrifuges and nuclear infrastructure.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu.

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