How to Interpret Iran’s New Nuclear Advances

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IRIB Iranian TV / Reuters

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks on next to scientists unveiling a fuel rod at the Tehran Research Reactor in Tehran, in this still image taken from video Feb. 15, 2012. .

The nuclear advances announced Wednesday by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are a prelude to an expected new round of talks between Tehran and Western powers — and also a moment of  electioneering by a political faction struggling to retain its grip on the country’s elected institutions. Expressing Tehran’s defiance in the face of escalating Western sanctions, the announcements suggest that while Iran’s leaders might be giving themselves the option of making concessions, they’re not about to cry uncle and accept the terms being demanded of them. Iran combined Wednesday’s announcement with a letter sent to Western powers expressing Tehran’s readiness for new talks  in search of “fundamental steps for sustained co-operation.”

Ahmadinejad was shown on national TV attending the installation of a domestically-produced fuel plate of uranium enriched to 20% into a Tehran research reactor that produces medical isotopes. He also attended an elaborate ceremony announcing what Tehran said was a “new generation” of centrifuges capable of more rapidly enriching uranium — a claim questioned by some non-proliferation experts, such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Mark Fitzpatrick who suggests that Iran has long overstated the capacity and sophistication of its centrifuges.

(READ: Can Israel stop Iran’s nuke efforts?)

Still, the announcements signaled continued defiance of international pressure over Iran’s nuclear program, which is steadily accumulating the means to build nuclear weapons even if (as U.S. and allied intelligence agencies concur) Iran is not currently building such weapons, nor has it taken a decision to do so. The sanctions efforts of the Obama Administration and its European allies have begun to sharply affect Iranian living standards, and the White House has now begun moving to further strangle Iran’s ability to export oil by seeking to block access to the international electronic banking transfer system. An Iranian TV network reported Wednesday that the country had decided to retaliate by halting oil exports to six European countries, to punish the EU for adopting an embargo on Iranian oil that comes into effect in June. Cutting off supplies before those countries had secured replacement supplies would disrupt oil markets — prices hit a six-month high on the news — although the Iranian officials disputed the report and said that no decision to that effect had yet been taken.

Iran has also been accused by Israel of staging an attack on one of its diplomats in India, and of being responsible for foiled attempts in Georgia and Thailand this week, with observers suggesting that they may be a crude and clumsy attempt at retaliation for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists that Tehran blames on Israel. But particularly given their lack of professionalism, there’s no definitive indication as yet over their authorship.

(READ: In Thailand, evidence suggests bombings tied to a larger plot.)

Although no date nor venue has yet been agreed, Iran has signaled its willingness to return to talks “without preconditions” over its nuclear program with the P5+1 group (the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia plus Germany) that produced no progress a year ago in Istanbul. The no-preconditions stipulation is not an expression of flexibility, of course, because it is the Western powers that have set preconditions for renewed talks, in the form of Iranian readiness to respond positively to longstanding demands on uranium enrichment on which the two sides have failed to agree until now.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, in Washington this week following consultations in Iran, told U.S. officials that he believed Iran was ready to deal but that the different parties would have to overcome mutual suspicions. His government opposes sanctions and military threats as pointless and counterproductive to achieving a diplomatic settlement. Those sanctions may be putting the squeeze on the living standards of ordinary Iranians, but the assumption that this will fuel anger at the regime and pressure for it to back down on the nuclear issue may be flawed: Azadeh Moaveni reports that the anger being generated by the sanctions is, in fact, being directed primarily at the Western powers imposing them, eroding goodwill towards the West among many Iranians opposed to the regime.

Iran’s nuclear program remains popular and a point of consensus within Tehran’s fractured political system, and Ahmadinejad, whose faction is facing mounting pressure from rival conservatives loyal to the clerical Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, is clearly trying to milk nuclear achievements for political advantage in next month’s parliamentary election.

The regime’s message to its public — and its Western interlocutors — appears to be that Iran will not yield to sanctions and pressure, with the successful production of 20% enriched fuel rods a case in point: Iran had previously been prepared to negotiate over acquiring such fuel from abroad, but when the most recent version of that deal broke down and gave way to more sanctions, they went ahead and produced it themselves — in the process honing their capacity to enrich uranium to higher grades, and therefore to produce bomb-grade materiel (enriched to 90%) if they chose to do so. Ongoing 20% enrichment also creates a cache of material that could be more rapidly reprocessed to weapons-grade.

Having proven their capacity to enrich to higher levels and produced the fuel necessary to run the Tehran Research Reactor, the Iranians could arguably be giving themselves the option of offering an end to 20% enrichment as a key concession (from their point of view) in any negotiations, for which they would expect a substantial quid-pro-quo in respect of sanctions. (Iran favors a model suggested by Russia in which incremental Iranian measures to strengthen safeguards against any military dimension to their program be choreographed in sequence with incremental reductions in international sanctions.) Having ceremoniously replenished the research reactor with home-made fuel, the Iranians could claim to a domestic audience that stopping 20% enrichment is not a concession, but simply that the job has been completed.

If there is a confidence building deal to be done, it may well focus on the 20% enrichment issue — a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s enrichment of reactor-fuel grade uranium (less than 4%) is likely to remain elusive for now. Israel and France continue to insist that Iran cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment capability on its own soil, despite the Non-Proliferation Treaty allowing such enrichment under standard safeguards against weaponization. The Bush Administration had maintained the same position; the position of the Obama Administration on an acceptable end-point is less clear. But because even the enrichment infrastructure allowed to all signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty for peaceful energy purposes under IAEA supervision can be repurposed to manufacture bomb fuel, Israel and its partisans on Capitol Hill remain opposed to any deal that allows Iran all the rights of an NPT signatory — and Iran remains equally determined to assert its right to enrich uranium for non-military purposes. So even if it goes to the negotiating table, there’s no end in sight to the battle of wills over the Iranian nuclear program.