As the Western media reported it, the future of U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations suffered a major setback on Feb. 7 when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seemed to reject Vice President Joseph Biden's offer of direct talks. "Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America, however, negotiations will not solve the problem," the supreme leader said in a statement posted on his website. "You are pointing a gun at Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
But Ayatollah Khamenei's statement can also be read as an invitation for genuine negotiations -- negotiations that are not conducted in the shadow of increasingly draconian sanctions and that take seriously Iran's legitimate interests and rights. Despite a number of recent encouraging signs -- such as President Barack Obama's nomination of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel for key administration posts -- the nuclear standoff remains deadlocked over the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A major breakthrough is needed. The supreme leader's recent statement notwithstanding, that breakthrough is within reach, though it will require looking beyond the NPT to a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khamenei in 2003 that bans nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
The present diplomatic quagmire is primarily the result of irreconcilable demands. Iran has made clear that resolving the nuclear imbroglio will require international recognition of the country's legitimate right to enrichment under the NPT and the lifting of sanctions. The P5+1 (The five permanent members of U.N Security Council and Germany), meanwhile, have articulated five major demands based on the NPT: 1) implement the so-called Additional Protocol, which enables further intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, including visits to military sites such as Parchin, 2) make the nuclear program more transparent, 3) give access to the IAEA beyond the NPT and its Additional Protocol to address concerns about possible military dimensions to the country's nuclear activities, 4) limit uranium enrichment to 20 percent, and 5) convert to fuel rods or export all enriched uranium stockpiles that are not immediately used for domestic consumption.
These demands go far beyond the NPT, which permits member states to enrich to any level and places no limits on stockpiling enriched uranium. The Additional Protocol, meanwhile, is a voluntary measure that has yet to be accepted by 70 countries. In other words, the inspections demanded of Iran are so invasive that there is currently no international non-proliferation treaty or mechanism that covers them.
Nonetheless, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reiterated Tehran's readiness to "immediately" stop production of low-enriched uranium at 20 percent as long as the international community agrees to supply the necessary nuclear material for the country -- something it has refused to do in the past. Likewise Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has even referenced the Additional Protocol directly as part of an offer to "recognize the concerns of the West and to try to mitigate them using all the possible instruments that are available." Still, two concerns remain.