Iran cautioned the U.S. and European powers against sticking to rigid negotiating positions that might torpedo a chance to de-escalate their nuclear dispute.
Negotiations attended by the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went into a third day in Vienna, according to an EU statement.
“We hope the past experiences will prove to be helpful in order to avoid similar mistakes,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said late yesterday in a briefing broadcast by Press TV. “It’s not clear when such a similar opportunity would emerge again for the West.”
Discord focuses on what uranium-enrichment capacity Iran should maintain under an agreement. The U.S. has sought a reduction of the 19,000 fast-spinning centrifuges Iran already has installed. The Persian Gulf country has sought to install additional machines to boost enrichment capacity.
Araghchi invoked Iran’s March 2005 proposal to European diplomats at a Paris meeting to underscore the potential costs of not coming to an agreement. At the time, Iran offered to cap the number of installed centrifuges to 3,000 until additional confidence was built, said Peter Jenkins, a former U.K. ambassador who participated in the talks.
“March 2005 was the high point of good opportunities,” he said in a telephone interview. “We had exaggerated hopes and expectations and thought that it we stayed firm, they would eventually cave in to our conditions.”
“Their policy of zero enrichment caused that opportunity to be lost,” Araghchi said. “There’s a similar situation now, a similar condition.”
Diplomats now say Iran can continue enriching, albeit at a level below the level that would be needed to make weapons. An interim agreement with Iran reached in November put caps on the purity of nuclear material produced and allowed United Nations monitors broader access to sites in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.
Negotiators are trying to win a permanent accord by July 20. If they fail to do so, they may roll over the current deal for another six months.
“It’s a dangerous game that both sides are playing in terms of setting these notions of numbers that can be used by hardliners on both sides,” European Council on Foreign Relations fellow Ellie Geranmayeh said in a phone interview from Berlin. “It’s time for both the U.S. and the Iranians to tone down and stop this business of setting down numbers and limits on breakout times.”
U.S. researchers at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington have argued the number of centrifuges in Iran has to be limited to prevent a so-called breakout to nuclear weapons.
“The concept of breakout has been redefined inside the Iran nuclear debate,” said Robert Kelley, a former U.S. nuclear weapons engineer in a telephone interview. Breakout had been a concept used by U.S. nuclear strategists to determine whether countries were breaking the rules, like when the Soviet Union ended a moratorium on nuclear-weapons tests in 1961.
“That was unexpected, unannounced and strategically very distressing,” Kelley said. Trying to apply a theoretical breakout capacity to UN-monitored nuclear activities “doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.
Diplomats are trying to draft “elements of the text that could be part of an agreement,” EU spokesman Michael Mann said today via phone from Vienna.