Iran nuclear talks, in home stretch, still face obstacles

Iran distrusts US intentions – and fears that it will make irreversible decisions in exchange for only temporary sanctions relief.

Ronald Zak/AP
Former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, third left, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, rear center, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, second right, wait for the start of closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014.

More than 30 months of Iran nuclear talks are coming to a frenetic diplomatic climax before a Monday deadline.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met last night and today, and canceled plans to fly to Paris and Tehran, respectively, for consultations. Iran and six world powers aim to limit Iran’s nuclear program – ensuring it can't produce a nuclear weapon – in exchange for relief of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Both Iran and the so-called P5+1 group (US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) have slowly climbed down from maximalist positions since spring 2012. But still elusive is a mutually acceptable balance: between the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity and how long constraints on it will last  –  and how quickly and definitively US, European, and UN sanctions will be eased. Further compromise will be necessary for both sides for a deal, but is likely to grate against publicly stated positions. 

Iran says nuclear weapons are forbidden by Islam; the P5+1 want verifiable guarantees the country means it. The intensity of the talks at the moment indicate that all players are taking the looming deadline seriously, even though British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said there was “still a very significant gap between the parties,” before both he and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius departed Vienna.

“When I hear both sides describing the level of granularity they are going into in these negotiations, it’s crystal clear that it’s for real,” says Reza Marashi, research director for the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, who is in Vienna to monitor the talks.

“Right now, we need the Iranians to make more painful compromises on the size and scope of their enrichment program. I think they can get there [because] politics will dictate whether they get there, not science,” says Mr. Marashi.

Painful compromises

Marashi argues that the US is also going to have to make "painful compromises" on sanctions up front to get to a deal. He warns that if negotiators go back to Tehran with something they can't sell, "compliance ... goes away," and Iran might opt for faster uranium enrichment, something that would breathe new life into the "escalation cycle." 

Iran is chafing at what it sees as a demand that it take irreversible steps in exchange for a temporary suspension of US sanctions. The country is being asked to reconfigure its small underground enrichment facility at Fordow for research, and to change its still-unfinished Arak heavy-water nuclear plant into one that produces less or no plutonium – another possible path to a bomb.

Iran worries that any sanctions relief could easily be reimposed thanks to anti-Iran, pro-sanction sentiment in Congress. Still, the US side has also compromised, for example on "breakout capacity" – the time it would take Iran or any country to get enough nuclear material for a bomb once it decided to do so. The US has shifted from pushing for a years-long time frame to just one year.

Likewise, Iran currently has 19,000 installed centrifuges, though nearly half have never been used. The P5+1 wanted that figure slashed to a token few hundred – a position unacceptable to Iran, which insists that it must fuel its own still-unbuilt reactors. Compromise figures now range from 4,000 to 8,000 centrifuges.

From a nonproliferation perspective, Iran’s enrichment capacity is already small, and relies on outdated, 1970s-era designs. By one count, if all of Iran’s installed centrifuges produced at maximum output for a year – utilizing twice as many as are operating now – they would still only produce what the European nuclear fuel company Urenco yields in five hours.

“There is no logic to the parties’ positions on anything, because it’s all about optics and politics,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “Would one consider 10,000 centrifuges that are under constant monitoring of the IAEA [the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency] a threat to world peace? Absolutely not. What is the use of 10,000 centrifuges operating? Absolutely nothing,” says Mr. Vaez.

“Then turn the table and talk about sanctions. Nothing is totally irreversible. Imagine that Congress lifted sanctions; they could re-impose them in a year based on another pretext like Iran’s role in Syria, or human rights,” says Vaez.

Another problem is more strategic, and requires a diplomatic shift.

“When you talk to the parties, you see they have invested so much in their own respective leverage, that now they are really reluctant to give it away,” says Vaez.

“If you talk to the Americans, they say, ‘It took us eight years to put these sanctions together, and now if we give it away – we can’t get it back,' ” he says. “And the Iranians say the same thing: ‘We have paid such a high price, even for these 9,400 operating centrifuges, that we just can’t give it away for a promise that could turn out to be a mirage.' ”

Nevertheless, the diplomatic flurry may yield at least a framework agreement, if not a completed comprehensive deal, by the Nov. 24 deadline.

“This is very serious, in the weeds, granular detail. It’s not just, ‘How many centrifuges?’” says NIAC’s Marashi of the talks. “You’re talking about literally writing different drafts of what a deal would look like, depending on how different pieces would move, living and breathing documents with different colored pens and highlighters … I never thought it would get this far.”

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