Sitting at the headquarters of the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi gave what can be considered the Islamic Republic’s first high-level official reaction to the outcome of the Istanbul round of talks with the P5+1 countries (consisting of Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany) over Iran’s nuclear program. Among other things, Salehi answered questions posed by reporters regarding the recent history of Iran’s nuclear program, its goals, what aspects of the program the Islamic Republic is willing to make concessions on and what it expects from the P5+1.
Beginning with the recent history of Iran’s nuclear program, Salehi discussed why Iran decided to shift towards higher levels of uranium enrichment. According to Salehi, during the tenure of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ex-Director General Mohammed El-Baradei, Iran began discussing possible fuel swap arrangements to meet both Iran’s enriched uranium needs and assuage the concerns of the P5+1 regarding Iran’s nuclear program. When Iran reached the conclusion that it could not purchase the fuel it required abroad, Salehi claims that the regime made the decision to enrich uranium to 20%. While acknowledging the impact of economic sanctions over the last few years on Iran’s nuclear program, Salehi nonetheless stated that:
“It is true that sanctions and restrictions slow down our [nuclear] work…they certainly do not stop our work.”
He concluded this point by saying that Iran’s advances in the field uranium enrichment had become clear to the West during the current round of negotiations.
Next, Salehi outlined Iran’s position on the nuclear program, focusing on the right to enrich uranium:
“…we have emphasized that we are in favour of transparency, dialogue, and a win-win outcome. It seems that from their [P5+1] perspective they have worries in regard to our nuclear activities and from our perspective we have rights. We are prepared to create the conditions to alleviate the spurious concerns that they have created in their imaginations, because we have confidence in our own [nuclear] work.”
While Salehi strongly insisted on Iran’s right to uranium enrichment, he was equally insistent on the Islamic Republic’s prohibition on nuclear weapons, referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons. He asserted that the fatwa was proof that the regime’s ban on nuclear weapons was rooted in Islamic jurisprudence rather than political convenience. A number of P5+1 members appear to have begun taking this fatwa more seriously during the Istanbul talks.
At this stage of the interview Salehi began discussing Iran’s primary goals in the negotiations. He stated that while Iran’s proposed package of items to be negotiated during the current talks included “…disarmament, international security and economic” issues alongside technical issues and concerns surrounding the nuclear program, this round of talks would likely emphasize specific items rather than the whole package.
Salehi made it clear that while Iran would not back down from its right to enrich uranium (enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)), it was willing to consider different proposals on the level of uranium enrichment conducted within the country:
“If they guarantee that they will give us nuclear fuel at different levels of enrichment the situation will be different… Enrichment is the right of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but in terms of how we shall obtain uranium at different levels we can address this [issue] in negotiations.”
Having laid out the areas in which Iran would be willing to make concessions, Salehi expressed Iran’s expectation from the P5+1, and especially the West:
“If the West wishes to undertake confidence building [measures] it must carry out confidence building in the area of sanctions, because this action can accelerate the [successful] conclusion of negotiations. It is correct that the lifting of sanctions could take a long time, but there is no reason for this to take a long time. If there are good intentions [we] can easily undertake this process and are prepared to very quickly, easily, and even by the time of the Baghdad talks resolve all of the issues.” The Baghdad talks, scheduled to take place on 23 May 2012, are the second round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program scheduled to take place this year.
He concluded by saying that while in previous talks the West was dissatisfied by negotiations, in the current round of talks both sides were satisfied with the progress made and agreed that negotiations were on the right track.
Editor’s Note: Salehi’s interview with ISNA reveals some interesting yet subtle shifts in Iran’s position. First, it supports our previous report that Iran preferred to negotiate over a more comprehensive set of issues (what some have called a “grand-bargain”), including sanctions and regional security, during these talks. Salehi acknowledges this point in the interview, but hints that during the Istanbul talks Iran was willing to begin talks by focusing on a narrower set of technical issues revolving around Iran’s nuclear program (the preference of the P5+1).
Second, Salehi is one of the first senior Iranian officials to admit that economic sanctions, especially US and European Union unilateral and multilateral sanctions, have been having some effect on Iran. While maintaining that sanctions have only slowed down Iran’s nuclear progress, the emphasis he places on Iran’s demands for the removal of sanctions shows that they have rapidly risen to the top of the regime’s priority list. Recent comments by US and EU officials indicate however that the removal of sanctions may be much more difficult than Iran hopes.