Here Are the Big Gaps Remaining in Iran Nuclear Talks

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U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama, beleaguered by conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East and beyond and a midterm election defeat at home, has an added incentive to claim success in an Iran deal before Republicans take control of Congress in January.Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

With less than three weeks before a Nov. 24 deadline to reach a deal preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, “big gaps” remain, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

There’s no agreement on fundamental questions, including the scope of the country’s uranium enrichment program, how and when to lift economic sanctions and how long Iran’s nuclear program must remain under international inspections and safeguards. Fourteen months after the talks between Iran and six world powers began, Kerry and other diplomats will meet for talks this weekend in Oman.

President Barack Obama, beleaguered by conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East and beyond and a midterm election defeat at home, has an added incentive to claim success in an Iran deal before Republicans take control of Congress in January.

In a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, Obama cited the two nations’ common interests in fighting Islamic State but said such cooperation depends on reaching a nuclear accord, according to two U.S. officials who confirmed a report yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. Iran’s parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani said this week that “viewpoints have gotten closer on many of the points discussed.”

While a deal would hold advantages for both sides, officials involved in the talks and nuclear specialists say an accord isn’t possible unless one or both sides make significant concessions they so far have rejected.

Getting to yes will depend on “hard political choices that neither party appears compelled to take until the eleventh hour,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group in Washington. Here’s a closer look at the main unresolved issues:

‘Break Out’

The U.S. is seeking constraints on Iran’s nuclear program that would extend from three months to one year the time the Islamic Republic would need to “break out” of a safeguards regime and produce enough fuel for one nuclear weapon. Iran says that its nuclear program is solely for energy and medical research.

The central disagreement is about the scope of Iran’s enrichment program because of concern that uranium enriched to fuel civilian reactors could be diverted by Iran and further enriched to make fuel for weapons.

Counting Centrifuges

Iran now has about 19,000 centrifuges, most of which are first-generation machines called IR-1s. About 9,400 such centrifuges are enriching uranium at two facilities, Natanz and Fordo. The rest -- including advanced IR2m centrifuges that have a higher capacity -- are installed but not operating. Khamenei has said Iran won’t dismantle its costly nuclear program, which is a source of national pride.

One U.S. official involved in the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said that while international negotiators had proposed a cap of 1,500 centrifuges, the U.S. would accept 4,000 if Iran eliminates its stockpile of enriched uranium.

“What’s not clear is whether Iran is prepared to move down from their position of 9,400 operating centrifuges,” said Robert Einhorn, a former State Department nonproliferation adviser who was on the U.S. negotiating team until last year.

The U.S. official last week described reviving an offer Iran rejected in 2009: For Iran to ship its enriched uranium to Russia, which would fabricate fuel for Iran’s reactors, ensuring that the Islamic Republic could use its uranium only for peaceful purposes.

The Obama administration floated that proposal in the press this week, to the surprise of several European diplomats close to the talks. Speaking on condition that they not be named because they weren’t authorized to be quoted, the Europeans said that this was the first their nations had heard of any such proposal.

Disabling Equipment

Then there’s the question of what happens to the centrifuges that aren’t operating. The U.S. has proposed that they be disabled, with piping and other key equipment removed so they couldn’t be easily put back into operation.

David Albright, the founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington who worked with United Nations weapons inspectors in the 1990s, said both sides must agree on a conversion rate if any first-generation centrifuges are to be replaced by advanced ones that can enrich uranium faster.

Limiting R&D

Another major issue is what limits Iran is willing to accept on nuclear research and development. Iran says it needs more work toward an industrial-scale nuclear power-generation program. Advanced centrifuges would give the Iranians the ability to enrich more uranium, which in turn could enable the country to secretly produce highly enriched fuel for weapons.

Verifying an Agreement

Next is the question of how to verify that Iran is honoring any agreement. Last November, under an interim accord signed in Geneva, Iran agreed to more frequent and intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities, giving UN inspectors daily access to the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo, a heavy-water reactor at Arak that could be used to produce plutonium for weapons and Iran’s centrifuge-assembly facilities. Inspectors also are currently allowed into Iran’s uranium mines.

Military Sites

Negotiators are seeking access for inspectors anywhere in Iran, consistent with existing international safeguard agreements. A key point of contention is whether Iran will allow access to military sites, including its base at Parchin, which the U.S. and allies say may harbor evidence of Iran’s past research on detonating a nuclear device.

In violation of its UN safeguards agreement, Iran has clandestinely tested centrifuges and created secret uranium enrichment facilities, as well as the Arak reactor. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported in 2011 that it had “credible” information that Iran had tested explosive components that are needed to detonate a nuclear weapon.

Iran denies any such activities and has shown no willingness to acknowledge past military work, according to negotiators.

Sanctions’ Fate

Iran is demanding that all sanctions, including UN resolutions, be removed as soon as an agreement is reached. While Obama can rescind White House executive orders, he can only suspend congressional sanctions on oil and banking that have become law -- meaning they could easily be re-imposed if Iran were caught cheating.

Members of the U.S. Congress from both political parties have said they’ll fight any effort to lift those sanctions if they’re unhappy with a deal. Republican control of the Senate starting in January will remove Democratic Senator Harry Reid from the post of majority leader, where he fended off bipartisan efforts this year to add more sanctions.

A number of other sanctions have been imposed on Iran for human-rights violations and support for terrorist organizations, which the international community doesn’t want to remove.

Iran is especially keen for UN sanctions to be lifted, as they can be interpreted as support for multilateral action against Iran. Negotiators say those will remain unless Iran complies with UN Security Council resolutions, which demand that Iran clarify whether any of its activities were intended to build a bomb.

How Long

Even the duration of any accord remains in dispute. The U.S. and its negotiating partners are seeking a 20-year agreement before Iran would be freed from safeguards and treated like any other nation that produces nuclear energy. Iran has said those measures should last for no more than five years.

Kerry will be pushing Iran for concessions on Nov. 9-10 in the talks in Muscat, Oman’s capital, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Catherine Ashton, the former European Union foreign policy chief who’s coordinating the talks. Negotiators from China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. will meet the following day with Iran’s team in Muscat, before convening again in Vienna on Nov. 18.

Iran wants the six powers to make the concessions. They must drop “illogical, excessive demands,” Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, one of Iran’s chief negotiators, said last week.

Despite optimistic words from Larijani and other Iranian officials, Einhorn, the former U.S. negotiator, said he thinks it’s “virtually impossible” for Iran and the international community to reach a final accord by Nov. 24. “The best that can be achieved is agreement on some key parameters and extend the agreement for several additional months,” he said.

(Corrects conclusion reached by former negotiator Einhorn in final paragraph of story published Nov. 7.)
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