Editorial: While the World Talks, Iran Enriches

The latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) over the Islamic Republic’s illicit nuclear program, held May 23-24 in Baghdad, ended once again in an impasse. Despite cautious optimism going into the talks between Iran and the six world powers amid reports that Tehran was finally willing to accept curbs on its uranium enrichment, no breakthrough was achieved. Iran continued to reject even the minimal demands of the international community, and the parties could only agree to hold another round of talks in Moscow in mid-June.

The P5+1 reportedly offered Tehran a package of benefits in exchange for freezing its production of nuclear fuel enriched to 20 percent, shipping its stockpile of the fuel out of the country and ceasing activity at Fordow, the once-secret nuclear facility built into a mountain. These benefits included nuclear fuel for a medical reactor and spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft.

However, the proposal met a swift refusal from Iran, which remains unwilling to comply with U.N. Security Council obligations to suspend enrichment. Instead, the Iranian envoys sought to lift oil sanctions, particularly a European Union oil embargo that comes into effect on July 1. And they predictably tried to divert the discussion to issues other than the nuclear program, by presenting a counterproposal that included broadening the focus of the talks to incorporate the conflict in Syria.

Similarly, high expectations regarding Iran’s talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have not been met. Despite a visit by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to Tehran, no agreement has been reached to allow for inspection of suspect nuclear sites and access to information and individuals associated with the nuclear program. Conciliatory-sounding signals from Iran during Amano’s visit apparently amounted to little more than a negotiating tactic ahead of the negotiations in Baghdad.

The lack of a deal has prevented the IAEA from visiting the Parchin facility, where Iran is believed to have carried out experiments on nuclear weaponization. Satellite images indicate that Iran has been working to cleanse the site by removing buildings and soil.

After the Baghdad talks faltered, Iran’s nuclear chief said the country would not halt its production of higher-grade uranium, backtracking on previous statements. “We have no reason to retreat from producing the 20 percent, because we need 20 percent uranium just as much to meet our needs,” Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said. This is a specious claim, since the Islamic Republic has already stockpiled enough 20 percent enriched uranium to run its research reactor for another 10 to 20 years at its current power level.

Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities are constantly and steadily increasing. As Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general of the IAEA, recently noted, the facilities at Natanz and Fordow have produced enough nuclear material to build half a dozen weapons.

Until recently, Iran had very little to lose from this constant game of proposals and counterproposals. The negotiations and long breaks separating one round from another have simply given the regime more time in its race toward a nuclear weapon.

It is only the latest round of biting sanctions imposed by the U.S. and E.U. that have gotten Tehran’s attention and brought it back to negotiations. The fact that its envoys demanded a rollback of these sanctions indicates that the regime is worried about their effect, with the value of the Iranian currency falling, inflation soaring and the Islamic Republic unable to sell much of its oil.

Yet Iran continues to enrich uranium and shows no signs of willingness to change course. Thus, more pressure is needed. America must make clear that it will act to prevent Iran from achieving the capability to build a nuclear weapon. And it must also continue to reject any policy that seeks to contain a nuclear Iran. President Obama and the House have publicly rejected such an approach.

Now that economic sanctions have dragged Tehran to the negotiating table, further measures are necessary to force it to negotiate in earnest and abide by the requirements of the international community. Existing sanctions targeting Iranian banks, including the Central Bank of Iran, companies working in Iran’s energy sector and Iranian ports need to be enforced. Any institution doing business with these entities must be penalized.

In addition, Congress should finalize sanctions legislation overwhelmingly passed in both chambers. The measures would sharply tighten the enforcement of existing sanctions law.

Time is running out. The world cannot afford further rounds of talks during which Iran is allowed to advance its nuclear weapons pursuit.