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Top Diplomats Grapple With Iran Over Half-Built Nuclear Reactor

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry consults his mobile phone prior to a meeting on Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva Switzerland, on November 9, 2013. Photographer: Jason Reed/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Envoys from Iran and world powers, seeking to break a decade-long diplomatic deadlock, grappled over a partly built reactor that could be configured to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that Iran’s reluctance to suspend construction of its Arak heavy-water reactor remained one sticking point along with reducing stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium. A Western diplomat who asked not to be named because the negotiations are delicate said the U.S., the European Union and Iran have worked for months on a proposal and the French objections were overdone.

The Chinese and Russian foreign ministers were due to join their French, German, U.K. and U.S. counterparts in Geneva for a third day of talks today, where negotiators were aiming to complete an accord over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told reporters that negotiations will be postponed to a future round unless a deal is reached tonight, the state-run Fars news agency said.

“We are still not there,” Fabius told reporters in Geneva today. Without an Iranian pledge to stop work at the partially built Arak reactor, from which plutonium can be extracted and used for bomb-grade material, “we’ll be faced with a fait accompli,” he said in an interview with France Inter radio. “We want an agreement, but not a fool’s bargain.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry resumed talks this afternoon with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the EU’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton after more than six hours of talks yesterday. The Iranian foreign ministry said the U.K. and Germany are supporting the talks, according to Iran’s Mehr news agency.

Lifting Sanctions

While talks have yielded compromises on both sides, diplomats are still struggling to end the deadlock over the suspected pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that has cast the specter of another Middle Eastern war. Iran has said it needs atomic power for energy and medical research, and that it’s willing to limit the size and scope of nuclear activities that may lead to weapons. World powers are offering to lift some sanctions in return.

The Arak reactor “represents a long-term proliferation risk not a near-term risk,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said today by e-mail. “France and the other P5+1 powers would be making a mistake if they hold up an interim deal that addresses more urgent proliferation risks over the final arrangements regarding Arak.”

Arak Monitoring

Nuclear weapons can be made with highly enriched uranium, which Iran is already capable of producing, or plutonium extracted from spent-fuel used in reactors like Arak.

Iran has told United Nations monitors that it would postpone operation of the heavy-water reactor in Arak. At technical discussions in Vienna last week, it wouldn’t agree to shutter or convert the plutonium-producing facility to a light-water reactor, according to a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified because of the talks’ sensitivity.

“Any reactor of that particular type is a serious concern,” said Robert Kelley, a U.S. nuclear engineer who led UN investigations of Iraq’s nuclear program. At the same time, the facility can be adequately monitored and Iran hasn’t shown any intent to extract plutonium, meaning “Arak is not an immediate threat,” he said.

The objective of this negotiating round was an accord that would serve as a first step toward a comprehensive agreement. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a message of support on Twitter late yesterday praising Iran’s negotiators, who have been criticized by conservatives at home for conceding too much.

‘Important Gaps’

Kerry tempered expectations on his arrival, saying there were still “important gaps that have to be closed.”

That message was relayed again today by Britain and Germany. While making “very good progress,” any accord “has to be detailed, it has to be exhaustive, it has to be quite painstakingly arrived at,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters. “And therefore it is not surprising that there are detailed negotiations and that they may need to go on for some time.”

Kerry traveled to Geneva from Israel, where he’d met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most outspoken critics of the recent diplomacy with Iran.

Netanyahu, who said yesterday that he “utterly rejects” any agreement that may emerge in Geneva, insists that Iran’s nuclear program must be dismantled in full. Iran is willing to limit the “size, scope and dimensions” of uranium enrichment without bringing it to a complete halt, Araghchi said.

The presence of so many top foreign officials may still signal that a deal is possible.

“Foreign ministers don’t show up to be embarrassed,” said Jim Walsh, a security analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who has traveled to Iran for talks with nuclear officials. “They’re in town because they’re close enough to a deal to come.”

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