Hirsh: A New Way Out on Iran?

U.S. and European officials are still very angry at Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for appearing to concede that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is here to stay. “Every time he gets up there, he comes out with Iranian talking points,” snipes one Western diplomat. But NEWSWEEK has learned that the British recently drafted a proposal that shifts the West’s “red line” closer to  El Baradei’s position as a way of breaking the stalemate in the talks.

The draft proposal, which is being circulated among the governments but has not yet been formally submitted to Iran, calls for a “freeze for freeze” rather than an outright suspension of enrichment. The “freeze” concept is similar to the “timeout” that ElBaradei first called for last January. In order to get talks started, both ideas effectively permit Iran to continue with the uranium enrichment it is doing already, but they demand that Tehran freeze further construction of centrifuges and reprocessing of nuclear material, in exchange for a reciprocal freeze on further U.N. sanctions. That seems to mark a concession by the Europeans and Americans, who had previously insisted that Tehran suspend all enrichment activities before they would come to the table to negotiate a broader agreement. Washington and the so-called “EU-3”—Britain, France and Germany—also pushed through two U.N. Security Council resolutions insisting on suspension.

In an interview, a European diplomat who is helping to disseminate the proposal denied that it represents a breach of the U.S-European “red line,” which is to insist that Iran suspend all enrichment before formal talks begin. “We’re talking about choreography here,” he said. “We said we are prepared to be flexible over process to get back to talks. That doesn’t mean that we’re flexible over the substance of the red line. If it would help the Iranians to be able to sell this to their own domestic audience, to say they won this great victory, we can accept that.” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has insisted that Iran will never suspend enrichment.

Earlier this year, Iran announced it had reached “industrial-scale” enrichment, with more than 1,000 centrifuges operating. Despite some technical setbacks, experts feared that Tehran was working its way steadily toward the 3,000 centrifuges it would need to produce nuclear weapons (though Tehran denies that is its aim). Around that time, ElBaradei outraged European and American negotiators by suggesting that Iran’s program was so far advanced that demands for complete suspension were unrealistic. "They pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich [uranium]," he told The New York Times. "From now, it's simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that's a fact."

An IAEA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that ElBaradei is simply recognizing the reality on the ground in Iran that Washington refuses to see. “ElBaradei warned about this a year ago when they had only 20 centrifuges—in other words, the danger of just letting things drag on. There is simply not going to be any absolute suspension of Iran’s activities, and the longer the United States and others hold out for that the more centrifuges Iran will build,” said the official. ElBaradei’s worry is that if the diplomatic stalemate continues, Iran could have 8,000 centrifuges by Christmas, a critically high number.

Tehran also seems to be gravitating toward a “freeze for freeze.” During a visit last week to Iran, I talked to a senior Iranian official, Mohsen Rezai, secretary of the Expediency Council, who spoke favorably about El Baradei’s concept of a timeout. “With old solutions and old arguments, [the nuclear issue] will not be resolved,” he said, adding, “I agree with Mr. El Baradei that you cannot bomb away nuclear technology.” Now, sensing they may have an ally at the IAEA, the Iranians are eager to satisfy ElBaradei’s demands for further clarity on the illicit history of Iran’s program—so much so that Larijani met twice with him last week. Larijani also apparently dropped Iran’s earlier demand that cooperation with the IAEA would come only after the Security Council referred the Iran case back to the agency. “They can have their surveillance. They can have their inspections,” Larijani told me in a separate interview in Tehran. What remains at issue is how much enrichment Iran will be permitted to have.