Ashton-Zarif - Third Geneva Nuclear Talks

The Third round of the Geneva P5+1-Iran Nuclear Negotiations: A Primer


The upcoming third round of the Geneva talks between the United Nations Security Council Permanent Five plus Germany (P5+1) and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will take place between Wednesday 20 and Friday 22 November in Geneva, Switzerland, could be a decisive turning point in the Iranian nuclear saga which began in earnest August of 2002. Yet what are the main issues at stake and the political dynamics on both sides heading into the third Geneva talks? This primer provides a brief overview of all the basics you need to know for the upcoming talks.


Since the start of the nuclear saga in the early 2000’s, the P5+1 has been principally concerned with the possibility that Iran’s nuclear program, which it claims is solely for peaceful purposes, may in reality be part of a nuclear weapons program or that it will give Iran nuclear latency which will allow the creation of nuclear weapons in the future. Within this general proliferation concern, there are at least four main issues at stake.

Uranium Enrichment & Centrifuges

Perhaps the most pressing aspect of the upcoming nuclear negotiation is the issue of Iran’s right to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, which will addressed in greater depth under Iran’s demands. Iran claims that as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has the right to enrich uranium up to five percent to produce nuclear fuel rods for use in nuclear energy production and up to 20 percent for the production of nuclear material suitable for medical purposes and research.

The P5+1, and in particular the United States and the European troika of Great Britain, France and Germany, maintain that Iran does not have an unconditional right to enrichment. The have expressed particular concern about Iranian uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level because this is seen as a short technical step away from a high level of enrichment which could yield material for a nuclear weapon. The P5+1 would thus like suspension of uranium enrichment at and above the 20 percent level and for Iran to ship the existing stockpile of this material abroad for conversion into a state which poses fewer proliferation risks.

The P5+1 would also like to place limits on the types and number of Iranian uranium centrifuges. It is hoped that all of these measures, taken together, would reduce Iran’s capability to potentially pursue a nuclear weapon in the future, make any such pursuit more difficult, and give the IAEA and international community advance notice if Iran makes a decision to build a weapon.

The IR-40 (Arak) Heavy Water Reactor

Iran’s IR40, or Arak, Heavy Water reactor is another key concern of the P5+1, apparently brought to center stage by France during the last (second) round of the Geneva talks. France’s concern – and that of some other P5+1 and Middle Eastern states – is that the Arak facility could provide Iran with a ‘plutonium route’ to a nuclear weapon, similar to the one successfully pursued by North Korea.

Of course, Iran appears far from completing and starting up the facility – Mark Hibbs at the Arms Control Wonk blog estimates 2015 at the earliest – and would need to also develop the capacity to refine the facility’s spent plutonium to a level suitable for weapons production. The worry of some P5+1 members – and their key allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – is that if the Arak facility is not addressed in the current negotiations and is completed, it may be be difficult to address later on or even take out with a military strike: The destruction of the facility by military means could lead to unacceptable humanitarian and environmental consequences.

The Additional Protocols

 As a signatory of the NPT, Iran is obligated to allow some level of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision of its nuclear program. However, the P5+1 and IAEA have asked Iran to sign the Additional Protocols, which would allow much more invasive inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities – and facilities which have not been declared as nuclear-related – on very short notice. It is believed that this would help shed light on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons research in the past, including at sites such as the Parchin military complex, and give the international community assurances about its current nuclear intentions.

Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant

The Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant, near the holy Shi’a city of Qom, is deeply buried uranium enrichment facility which contains much of Iran’s 20 percent enrichment capacity. It is believed that the Fordo facility would be difficult to destroy with a non-nuclear military strike, especially by countries such as Israel, which has a strong but limited military capacity and may not be able to take out the Fordo facility by itself.  The P5+1 has asked for the closure of the Fordo plant.


Right to Uranium Enrichment

Iran claims that under NPT Article IV(2), it has the right to uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. This article in part states that:

All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so shall also co-operate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.”

The P5+1, however, contests this right, at least as it is asserted by Iran, in part on the basis of NPT Article II:

Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

The NPT is somewhat ambiguous in this regard and both sides can marshal convincing arguments on their side. However, for Iran recognition of its right to some level of mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, including some uranium enrichment, is a basic requirement for any final agreement. Although recognition of this ‘right’ may not be in the works at the current stage of negotiations, it will most likely have to be part of the larger road-map for resolving the nuclear saga which is currently under consideration by the P5+1 and Iran.

Lifting of Economic Sanctions

For Iran, and especially President Rouhani, the lifting of economic sanctions, especially those by the United States and the European Union, is another basic requirement of an agreement. Sanctions have seriously undermined Iran’s economy by reducing its crude oil exports by nearly 60 percent and severely restricting its ability to carry out international financial transactions, among other things. This has led to a decline in economic growth, a precipitously fall in Iran’s currency since 2013 (although there has been a slight rebound since President Rouhani’s election), rise in inflation, worsened unemployment, and many other economic woes.

Sanctions-relief is also an issue in the current round of negotiations. Estimates of the amount of sanctions relief under consideration have varied. Colin Kahl, senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), has estimated the amount of sanctions relief at $6 billion over the first few months of the deal, the Barack Obama administration puts the value of sanctions relief to be around $10 billion and a recent report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) places the figure higher at around $20 billion.

President Rouhani has to take home sanctions relief in order to demonstrate to his domestic base, and skeptical Iranian conservatives, that he is both fulfilling his campaign promise of improving Iran’s economic situation and that the P5+1, especially the United States and European troika, are negotiating in good faith. The more concessions demanded by the P5+1, the more sanctions-relief he will have to take home.


The two sides have both acknowledged that the current talks cannot last forever, perhaps a few months at best. At the same time, given the complexity of the issues at stake, these talks are more like a marathon rather than a sprint. Any agreement, if one is reached, is likely to unfold in phases, with a number of temporary confidence-building measures (such as a freeze on uranium enrichment above 20 percent by Iran or a suspension of economic sanctions by the U.S./E.U.) building up to a more permanent solution (a complete moratorium on enrichment at and above the 20 percent level  and lifting of nuclear-linked sanctions).

It is believed that France scuttled the last round of talks when it raised the issue of the Arak facility and insisted it be in the package being negotiated. While France may have raised the issue, it appears that American consent sealed its status as a must-resolve issue for the early rounds of negotiations. There is pressure on both sides to reach a nuclear deal. President Obama faces a Congress which is hawkish on Iran. If the third round of talks fail, Congress could impose a new round of sanctions on Iran, which Iran may see as a sign of bad faith on the part of the Americans. New sanctions could be a major obstacle, if not a deal-breaker, for the negotiations. President Rouhani faces Iranian conservatives who are deeply skeptical about U.S./E.U. intentions. The failure of negotiations could weaken President Rouhani’s initiative for a more moderate Iranian foreign policy, ultimately undermining his entire presidency.

These  pressures, and the consequences of the failure of talks which could include war, may lead to a bargain being struck. For the time being, cautious optimism may be the best course. IranPolitik will be following the talks from Geneva. Stay tuned.