Iran, US line up technical options as push for deal intensifies
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – Iran and major world powers have been making headway in identifying technical options for a historic nuclear deal as an end-March deadline nears but difficult issues must still be addressed, a senior US official said on Tuesday.
Iran and six world powers are seeking an agreement to curb Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activities for at least 10 years in exchange for a gradual end to sanctions on Tehran.
The powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — aim to complete the framework of a final deal by the end of March and reach a full agreement by June 30.
“We have definitely made progress in terms of identifying technical options for each of the major areas,” the US official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “There is no way around it. We still have a ways to go … But even within this space, we have some tough issues to address.”
The official said any framework agreement settled this month would need to have key details, including numbers. “If there is an agreement, I don’t see how it could be meaningful without having some quantitative dimensions,” he said, without elaborating.
Western and Iranian officials doubted an agreement could be clinched this week and at least one more round of talks would be needed on a deal that could end a 12-year-old nuclear standoff between Tehran and the West over its atomic weapons.
The goal of the negotiations is to arrive at an arrangement whereby Iran would need at least one year to produce enough fissile material — high enriched uranium or plutonium — for a single atomic weapon, should Tehran choose to produce one. That is known as the “break-out” time.
The official said the six powers, which have been negotiating with Iran since October 2013, do not share their individual methods of calculating break-out time for Tehran. But they have all reached the same conclusions, he noted.
The official offered no details on the options under discussion. But negotiators say they are looking at a maximum number of enrichment centrifuges Iran could retain, the size of its future uranium stockpiles and other limitations Tehran would be subject to for at least 10 years.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, was more upbeat after meetings with US Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz in the Swiss city of Lausanne, where negotiations are taking place.
“We have made progress on technical issues,” Salehi told reporters. “One or two issues remain and need to be discussed.”
The US and Iranian delegations led by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif began another round of talks on Tuesday after the Iranians returned overnight from Brussels where they had met European foreign ministers.
Senior European officials were expected in Lausanne later on Tuesday. Officials said foreign ministers are on stand-by to join them at the end of the week if needed but expectations were very low that a deal would come this week.
A senior Iranian official said European foreign ministers would not be joining the talks this week.
“We’ll see what happens the rest of the week but for now we’re not there,” a senior Western diplomat said. The US official said the sides would work through the end of the month if needed to secure a deal.
Western powers and their allies suspect Tehran of wanting to create an atomic weapons capability. Tehran denies that and says its nuclear ambitions are purely peaceful.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting to remain in power in Tuesday’s election in Israel, has made clear he opposes engagement with Iran and enjoys strong support in the US Congress, where Republicans control both houses.
Last week 47 Republicans wrote to Iran’s leadership to warn them that they could undo any deal President Barack Obama strikes with Tehran. Another US official said Zarif raised the “ill-timed and ill-advised” letter on Monday with Kerry.
With the Iranian new year holiday of Norouz approaching this weekend, officials close to the talks say it will be difficult to complete a political agreement this week. If it is not possible by the weekend, the talks could reconvene in the final days of March.
Zarif said all sides needed to keep talking this week to see what could be achieved.
“On some issues we are closer to a solution and based on this we can say solutions are within reach. At the same time, we are apart on some issues,” he told the Iranian news agency IRNA.
Sticking points include the level of Iran’s enrichment activities and how sanctions would be lifted. Iran wants all US, EU and United Nations sanctions lifted immediately.
Factbox: Key questions in Iran nuclear talks with world powers
Following are details about key issues under negotiation based on information from sources close to the negotiations. Most of the issues are agreed, but sticking points remain.
The goal of the negotiations is an arrangement whereby Iran would need at least one year to produce enough fissile material — high enriched uranium or plutonium — for a single atomic weapon, should Tehran choose to produce one. That is known as the “break-out” time.
Officials say the six powers, which have been negotiating with Iran since October 2013, do not share their individual methods of calculating break-out time for Tehran. But they have all reached the same conclusions.
DURATION OF DEAL
US President Barack Obama said in an interview on March 2 with Reuters that Iran will need to accept limits on its nuclear program for at least 10 years. Recently Iran had wanted eight years and the United States 20 years. They have compromised at 10 years.
Originally Iran wanted to maintain all of its uranium enrichment centrifuges, machines that purify uranium for use as fuel in power plants or, if very highly enriched, in weapons. That was around 10,000 operational out of nearly 20,000 total.
The United States and other Western powers originally wanted Iran to reduce that number to several hundred. Numbers are still being discussed. Iran wants to keep around 9,000 while Western powers have preferred less and might be open to around 6,500.
The issue has not been resolved.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
Officials close to the talks say that Iran’s desire to pursue research and development into advanced centrifuges is one of the biggest sticking points in the talks. Iran insists that it should be allowed to continue R&D into advanced centrifuges but Western powers are extremely uncomfortable with allowing Tehran to continue developing more efficient centrifuges that would shorten the break-out time.
Western powers had originally wanted Iran to dismantle a heavy-water reactor at Arak that could yield significant quantities of plutonium. Tehran refused to do so but has agreed to the idea of converting or operating it in a way that ensures the amount of plutonium it could yield would be insignificant.
An underground enrichment plant that Iranian officials say they have agreed to convert into an R&D plant. Western officials would like this site converted into something that has nothing to do with enrichment.
There are also discussions about the size of Iran’s uranium stockpiles and how much would be relocated to Russia or another country, Western officials say. Stockpiles are an important issue, officials say, because the less uranium Tehran has on hand, the more centrifuges it can maintain.
Originally, Iran wanted to enrich 2.5 tonnes of uranium per year, but could settle at half a tonne, a senior Iranian official said. The remainder would be turned into fuel rods or sent toRussia, he added.
The speed of lifting sanctions is another major sticking point in the talks.
Iran wants all U.S, European Union and United Nations sanctions lifted immediately. The United States says sanctions should be lifted gradually. Officials close to the talks say Washington and France are willing to consider an immediate suspension of UN nuclear sanctions if there is an agreement, though many UN restrictions would remain in place.
Tehran is most interested in seeing crippling energy and financial sanctions lifted.
The US government says sanctions would first be suspended and later terminated. This has become a sensitive issue in the United States, as Republicans controlling both houses of Congress have threatened to impose new US sanctions on Tehran against the advice of Obama. Obama has said he would veto any new sanctions steps for fear they would torpedo the delicate negotiations.
Obama can use executive authority to suspend sanctions but many US measures can only be terminated by Congress.
POSSIBLE MILITARY DIMENSIONS
The United States and its Western allies say it is vital that Iran fully cooperate with a UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into past nuclear activities that could be related to making weapons.
The IAEA issued a report in 2011 with intelligence information indicating concerted activities until about a decade ago that could be relevant for developing nuclear bombs. It said some of these might be continuing.
Iran for its part has said these “possible military dimensions” (PMD) are an issue it will not budge on. “PMD is out of the question. It cannot be discussed,” an Iranian official said. This issue has not been resolved.
Any deal would require a vigorous monitoring framework to ensure Iranian compliance. Officials say they are working out a monitoring mechanism that would involve the IAEA. This is not considered a sticking point in the talks. – Reuters