As Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Vienna Friday seeking to complete an agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear activities, two senior Obama administration officials rejected suggestions that the administration is backtracking on its demands in its eagerness for a deal.
The U.S. is standing firm in insisting that Iran must grant access and transparency so that United Nations inspectors can verify that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, according to the officials, who are close to the negotiations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officials’ insistence that Iran must adhere to the strict terms of an April 2 framework for a deal is significant because skeptics of a deal with Iran have raised alarms that U.S. negotiators are backsliding on their demands.
“Despite getting virtually nothing in return, the president has handed Iran concession after concession after concession,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio told reporters on Thursday. “Giving Iran more flexibility will not lead to a good deal.”
Iran won’t get any relief from economic sanctions before a package of nuclear steps laid out in the framework agreement are taken, according to administration officials, one of whom briefed reporters as several others from the White House, State Department and the Treasury commented in interviews, all on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations.
If a deal is reached, sanctions wouldn’t be lifted until international inspectors can verify that Iran has complied with all the nuclear restrictions that are agreed upon, a process likely to take six to nine months, according to the U.S. officials close to the talks. That means no additional Iranian crude would come to market before 2016.
In the absence of any reliable information about what’s happening behind closed doors in Vienna, U.S. and Iranian officials have been striking public poses and exchanging shots with critics of the negotiations.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said this week that economic, financial and banking sanctions “must be lifted immediately after a deal is signed,” according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. Setting out other demands that the U.S. has described as deal-breakers, Khamenei also listed as unacceptable international inspections of Iran’s military sites and restrictions on its nuclear work lasting as long as a decade.
Before oil sanctions were imposed in mid-2012, Iran was the second-largest producer in OPEC. Today, it exports just over 1 million barrels a day, less than half of what it did before sanctions. The restrictions have denied Iran billions of dollars in oil revenue and limited foreign investment and the country’s ability to engage in international banking.
The nuclear steps Iran will have to take, according to the April 2 framework, include removing a majority of centrifuges from the main Natanz uranium enrichment facility; halting enrichment at the underground Fordo facility; reconfiguring the Arak heavy water reactor so it can’t produce plutonium; reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium; allowing access to its entire nuclear program, from uranium mills and mines to reactors, and addressing international concerns about military aspects of Iran’s past nuclear research.
Asked if the administration would budge on the last point, the official who briefed reporters on Thursday said no.
Access for Inspectors
Iran will get no relief from oil, banking or other sanctions until it addresses concerns based on U.S. and other intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Iran was engaged in covert work to acquire a nuclear weapons capability until 2003, the official said. That means Iran will have to provide the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency access to scientists, documents and sites.
Last week, Kerry said the U.S. was “not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,” adding: “ We know what they did.” More important, he said, is “that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.”
His comments added fuel to the fire for critics who say the administration is making too many concessions and worry that the deal wouldn’t resolve questions about Iran’s past military work.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior U.S. official said privately that Kerry’s words may have been ill-chosen, but his message was misinterpreted, and the administration would sign a deal only if the IAEA has all the access it needs to answer its concerns.
While some time beyond the self-imposed June 30 deadline may be needed before the U.S. and five other world powers -- China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. -- can agree with Iran on an array of restrictions that would last for at least 10 years, it’s unlikely that the two sides would extend the talks for more than a few additional days if they can’t get an agreement, the official who briefed reporters said.
It would be difficult to expect negotiators to take a break and return later, the official said, citing the toll on dozens of nuclear and sanctions experts who’ve been away from their families for weeks or even months during two years of talks.
The official also dismissed speculation that the administration might buy time by endorsing a “political understanding” and coming back later to reach a final agreement. Agreeing to a plan of action without having a technical accord to carry it out doesn’t make sense, the official said.