The Iranian nuclear dossier is still considered as the most important challenge between Iran and the West; a dossier which has existed for more than a decade without any solution to untie its many knots. With the coming to power of the new administration in Iran, one whose main slogan on the nuclear issue was that of transparency and the quick restart of negotiations, hopes for serious assessment with the intention of negotiations bearing fruit have grown for both the West and for Iran. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with his P5+1 counterparts and reiterated Iran’s determination to close this heavy dossier. Iranian Diplomacy spoke with Pierre Goldschmidt, a Belgian nuclear scientist and former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), about the issues of difference between Iran and the P5+1 over the nuclear dossier. Mr. Goldschmidt is the former Head of the Department of Safeguards at the IAEA.

Considering its membership in the NPT, Iran always talks about its right to enrich uranium. Do the parties that have signed this treaty have the right to uranium enrichment? Based on this treaty, what percentage of enrichment is considered within the framework of peaceful activities?

Non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS) parties to the NPT have the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes if they comply with the other articles of the NPT, in particular articles II and III. Article II stipulates inter alia that a NNWS "undertakes not to manufacture and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices" and Article III provides that IAEA safeguards shall be applied on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities. My understanding (I am not a lawyer) is that a NNWS party to the NPT which is in full compliance with the NPT and its IAEA safeguards agreement(s) has the right to uranium enrichment. There is no limitation in the NPT or IAEA safeguards agreements on the level of uranium enrichment. But, as you know, Iran has been found by the IAEA Board of Governors to be in non-compliance with its safeguards agreement and there are significant indications that Iran has, at least in the past, been in breach of Article III of the NPT. Therefore Iran rights to uranium enrichment are no more guaranteed by the NPT until the IAEA Board has concluded that all nuclear material and activities in Iran (past and present) have been declared, placed under safeguards and are exclusively for peaceful purposes. The same applies to Iran's formal right to reprocess spent fuel assemblies and even to separate weapons-grade plutonium contained in irradiated fuel elements unloaded from the Arak heavy water research reactor. The UN Security Council has however adopted in December 2006 (under Chapter VII of the UN Charter) a legally binding resolution deciding that Iran had to suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.

Do you still believe that Iran is a nuclear threshold state?

Pierre Goldschmidt
Goldschmidt was a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.
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I have never said that Iran is a nuclear threshold state. What I said is that Iran's previous breaches of its safeguards agreement, the information contained in the November 2011 IAEA report regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program and especially Iran's lack of cooperation with the IAEA make more sense if Iran's objective has been and maybe still is to become a nuclear threshold state rather than if it never had this intention. One should notice that Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's fatwas banning the possession and use of nuclear weapons don't forbid Iran of becoming a nuclear threshold state.

In your opinion, what could Iran’s first step be on the path towards nuclear confidence-building?

The first step should be for Iran to comply with the IAEA Board of Governors resolution of September 12, 2003 (adopted ten years ago!) deciding that it is essential and urgent that Iran grants "unrestricted access, including environmental sampling, for the Agency to whatever locations the Agency deems necessary for the purposes of verification of the correctness and completeness of Iran's declarations." This means in practice for Iran to ratify the Additional Protocol (AP), and also to temporarily implement verifications measures going beyond the AP as has been requested many times by former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.

Many analysts believe that limiting uranium enrichment would be the best confidence-building measure Iran could take. What percentage of enrichment, do you believe, Tehran would be willing to accept and what percentage is accepted by the West?

It is well known that President Rohani, when he was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator stated already in October 2003 that Iran will never give up its right to enrich uranium. I don't think he has changed his mind. Today I believe no one requires Iran to "give up its right" to enrich uranium once the IAEA has concluded that Iran's declarations are correct and complete and that its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. In the meantime while retaining its right to enrich uranium Iran could choose not to exercise it until there is a short term need for it. In any case I think Tehran should be in a position first to suspend the production of uranium enriched beyond 5% U-235 as long as it has access to the international market for the higher enriched uranium required to cover the need of the Tehran research reactor. The West might however question Iran's rational for steadily increasing its stockpile of uranium enriched below 5% as long as it can import from abroad nuclear fuel assemblies for the Bushehr and other reactors. Iran has also stated that it has no intention to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and to separate plutonium. But how can the world be reassured that in some years from now Iran will not change its mind?

Under conditions where Tehran considers uranium enrichment as its right and holds a considerable amount of uranium, what practical proposal could the P5+1 offer with regard to Iran’s uranium reserves?

As long as the IAEA has not concluded that Iran's declarations are correct and complete, Iran could commit to send abroad its domestic stockpile of low-enriched uranium every six months for incorporation into fabricated fuel assemblies for the Bushehr reactor and possibly other light water reactors.

Is the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East possible? Does the achievement of this issue depend on the peace and security of the Middle East? Will Israel be willing to let go of its nuclear weapons?

Achieving a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East is a noble and important goal on the road to attaining a world free of nuclear weapons. The international community should take every opportunity to get closer to that objective. In reality, both goals will take decades to achieve. It is however possible to move in the direction of a WMDFZ in the Middle East for instance by establishing first a "nuclear-test-free zone" in the Middle East, and by having the P5 adopting legally binding "negative security assurances" to all states in the region that would be implemented automatically after a WMDFZ has been established. To achieve a nuclear-test-free zone in the Middle East simply requires that Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in a coordinated way and within an agreed period of time. This can be done without waiting for the achievement of peace and security in the Middle East.

In one of your speeches, you have reiterated that Iran and the P5+1 must negotiate in a win-win situation. What would the road map of this win-win negotiation be in your opinion?

I have made a number of suggestions in the past about steps that would improve significantly the trust between the parties. For instance, in case Iran would accept to fully implement the Temporary Complementary Protocol (TCP) (which can be found here on pages 29-43; ) the P5 and the IAEA Board of Governors should accord Iran a grace period during which Iran would not be penalized should it voluntarily disclose the existence of still undeclared nuclear material and activities or acknowledge past violation of the NPT (such as working on nuclear weaponization-related activities) or of its safeguards agreement. I also believe that if Iran accepts to place all its nuclear fuel-cycle facilities under irreversible IAEA safeguards (called Infcirc/66-type safeguards in the IAEA jargon) this would constitute a significant confidence building measure. I have of course other ideas about what could constitute a win-win solution realistically acceptable by all the parties. But it is too easy to make such proposals when you are far from the negotiating table. Also I am in favor of discrete if not secret diplomacy and not for negotiating through the media. What I find encouraging is that President Rohani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Head of the AEOI Ali Akbar Salehi, all understand full well the mentalities of their negotiating counterparts and know what they can possibly agree on and what is impossible to expect from them. I continue to believe that a win-win solution can be achieved. Some 500 years ago another high ranking cleric, Cardinal de Richelieu, said "Politics is the art of making possible what is necessary."

This interview was originally published in Iranian Diplomacy