DAVID IGNATIUS: On enrichment, Iran digs in as a permitted practice

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – The text of Iran’s negotiation proposal to the “P5+1” group last month makes clear what Iran’s “red lines” are in the nuclear talks, and where it might be willing to compromise.
The Iranian PowerPoint presentation, obtained from a source close to the talks, stresses Iran’s status as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the right to enrich uranium. Iranian negotiators devoted the first part of their presentation in Moscow to this topic, under the title: “Why enrichment is an inalienable and chartered right under the NPT.”
To buttress their argument on enrichment, the Iranians cite several passages in the treaty, plus references in other international documents. Some U.S. and Israeli experts question this claim, given what they say is the vagueness of the treaty. But it’s clear that Iran sees recognition as the cornerstone of any deal.
Enrichment has always been the decisive issue in nuclear talks. The P5+1 demands that Iran stop enrichment until it’s in full compliance with all U.N. resolutions. Iran insists on its NPT rights.
Some Iranian officials have indicated that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might accept a deal in which Iran is allowed some modest enrichment activity, but agrees to limit production below the level of roughly 800 kilograms needed to make a bomb.
The Iranian document does signal some flexibility on the P5+1’s “confidence-building” demand that Iran stop enriching to 20 percent and export its existing stockpile of such fuel.
But even if a formula could be negotiated on the 20 percent issue, two big problems would remain. First, the Iranians emphatically reject the P5+1 demand that they close the enrichment facility at Fordow, buried deep under a mountain near Qom. Explaining why this facility is so heavily fortified, the document states: “Facing constant threats, we need a back-up facility to safeguard our enrichment activities.” This is precisely what worries the United States and Israel.
A deeper problem is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views the 20 percent issue as a diversion. Netanyahu argues it would be a mistake to accept the cherry but leave Iran with the cake.
Complicating matters further, the Iranians also propose cooperation on “regional issues, especially Syria and Bahrain,” in exchange for their help “combating piracy and counter-narcotic activities.” This linkage of non-nuclear with nuclear issues probably won’t fly with Washington.
If the experts’ talks break down, the question will be whether negotiations might resume on another track. Some Iranians have signaled that Tehran might be ready for secret bilateral talks with the United States, but time is short, and election-year pressures will make real bargaining difficult. Meanwhile, sanctions squeeze tighter and the threat of Israeli military action looms.
One final item in the 48-page document caught my eye – a warning that Iran may need even more 20 percent fuel than anticipated because of plans for “at least four other research reactors” and for exporting enriched fuel “to other countries.” Maybe that’s a bargaining chip, or maybe it’s a sign these negotiations really are headed into the ditch.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.