Iran's nuclear talks

As the deadline for nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 closes in on 24th November, one thing is clear. Both parties are seriously engaged in and seem determined to achieve a breakthrough. They met in Vienna last month (October 15) and again earlier this week (November 3) and have come up with some substantial progress. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif met in Oman on November 9.

There appears to be some kind of agreement on two issues. First is that Iran would be allowed to operate 4000 centrifuges, from its present stock of over 10,000 centrifuges that are operating out of a total of over 19,000 centrifuges. Iran has, however, not agreed to destroy the rest as was demanded by the US. This could still be a sticking point with the US Congress, now over loaded with Republicans.

Second is that Iran has agreed to ship out its Medium Enriched Uranium (MEU), that is, uranium enriched up to 20 per cent, to Russia to be converted into nuclear rods for its Bushehr plant. This agreement brokered on November 3 seems to be a major step.

Handing over the MEU to Russia seems a more natural choice as the latter has been involved with the Iranian nuclear programme for over decades and with the Bushehr plant, in particular, for nearly a decade. Over 12,700 kg of MEU is to be handed over to Russia for conversion. Russia has been the most sympathetic supporter of Iran in the P5+1, in planning the gaming of negotiations with the rest. Though it is actively involved in building nuclear reactors in Iran and assisting its complex and treacherous navigation through the nuclear talks, it has sternly insisted on Tehran to give up its nuclear weapons programme.

Now, while the negotiations are on track and Iran is conceding most of the demands, why should there be an explosion in a site considered crucial to its nuclear programme, that too a missiles and munitions centre – Parchin? That is one place the IAEA inspectors were insistent on visiting though Iran had rightly objected to by saying that there were neither nuclear reactors, nor any nuclear material and that a missile development and test centre was beyond the scope of IAEA inspection.

The explosion at Parchin occurred on the night of October 5 and the massive blast and the resultant fire could be heard and seen in Tehran, about 30 km from the blast site. News reports indicate that several buildings were destroyed in the fire, though there were no casualties. To absolve the West of any possible linkage with the explosion, the New York Times adds for good measure that the site of explosion ‘was distant from a part of the base that the IAEA has been seeking access for years’…Now that is rather reassuring, but then who could have done it. 

This explosion appears to be entirely in line with a previous one at the very site in November 2011 that virtually destroyed a missile test and resulted in the death of 17 high level scientists and Gen Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, head of the Missile Development Centre. Iranian authorities directly blamed Israel for the attack. Israel neither accepted nor rejected the allegation and no other country or group claimed credit for it. The NYT, however, has recorded the unrestrained glee with which a senior Israeli officer noted several weeks later that the timing of the explosion was remarkable because General Moghaddam, who travelled often, “just happened to be sitting in his office” at the time’.Just a happy coincidence for Israel!

Targeted killings
Iran has been facing targeted killing of its nuclear scientists and precision guided cyber attacks on its nuclear reactors since the early 2010. Three of its nuclear scientists were killed in a targeted car bomb attack, while the fourth one survived and went on to become the head of Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran.

Israel’s intelligence agency – the Mossad – was the obvious suspect. It is believed to have acted in collaboration with the Mujahideen e-Khalq, an Iranian émigré organisation banned by the US as a terrorist organisation. Later, both Israel and the US joined hands to launch highly sophisticated cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Most famous of them was the virus known as the ‘Stuxnet’, launched in June 2010. It was designed to attack industrial Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs). It compromised Iranian PLCs and caused the fast-spinning centrifuges to destroy themselves, by altering their speed.

The programme reportedly ruined almost one-fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges.

More recently, in March this year, Iran foreign minister Zarif said that an external power had tried “to create malfunctions in equipment” purchased for the Arak heavy water reactor plant from outside Iran “so that instead of cooling the facility, they would have increased the heat in the facility had we not detected it” in time. He added that it could have led to an “environmental catastrophe”.

After all that baggage of hostility, it is surprising that Iranians are still talking to the Americans. The pain of sanctions the Iranians have suffered leaves little options for President Rouhani who has come to power on a campaign of ‘Hope and Recovery’. He has a promise to keep and the date is November 24.

(The writer is retired joint secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and presently a Visiting Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi).

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