Iran Talks Advance, But Anything May Be Deal Breaker, U.S. Says

With two weeks until the deadline for a framework deal, talks to restrict Iran’s nuclear program have advanced, but any major element in negotiations remains a potential deal-breaker, Obama administration officials said.

Likening the push to a puzzle in which every piece needs to click into place, two U.S. officials involved in talks downplayed expectations for any imminent pact. There’s still work to do even after negotiators made progress identifying technical options to cut off Iran’s pathways to weapons-grade fissile material, said one official who asked not to be named in line with diplomatic rules.

Iran needs to make some tough and significant choices to prove to the international community that its nuclear program is purely peaceful, a second U.S. negotiator said Monday. The U.S.- Iran talks are scheduled to continue through the week, but must adjourn Friday for the Iranian New Year. After meetings early next week in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry could resume negotiations around March 25.

While the discussions are behind closed doors, officials from the U.S., Iran and Israel are using press briefings and private remarks to pressure the other parties, shape public opinion and influence decision-makers.

Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for nearly two-and-a-half hours Tuesday morning in a palatial 1861 lake-front hotel in Lausanne. That followed five hours of talks Monday and Zarif’s evening meetings in Brussels with the British, French and German foreign ministers and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who said she sees “elements for a deal, but I still see the gaps.”

‘Slow Going’

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist, and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, also met on Monday and Tuesday. In an interview Monday, Salehi said that while progress had been made, negotiations were “slow-going.”

The U.S. is pushing for a political accord by March 31, with technical details to be ironed out by the end of June. Kerry says now is the time for a deal as nothing is going to change in the months ahead that would make an agreement easier to reach.

“Time is of the essence, the clock is ticking and important decisions need to be made” by Iran, Kerry said on Saturday, hinting that the U.S. is willing to walk away if Iran won’t agree to long-term restrictions and inspections that guarantee it remains at least one year away from any effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

Six-Month Buffer

Nuclear experts inside the U.S. government and its external advisers say a six-month buffer would be sufficient for the U.S. and its allies to stop Iran if it broke out of safeguards or secretly attempted to make a nuclear weapon, one U.S. official told reporters on Monday.

Even so, the Obama administration is pushing for restrictions that would ensure Iran would need at least one year to “break out” in an effort to make a weapon, the official said.

The remarks by Kerry and U.S. negotiators appeared aimed both at reassuring critics in Washington and Israel who accuse President Barack Obama of conceding too much, and at sending a message to Iran’s negotiators that they won’t get better terms by dragging out the talks.

Crippling economic sanctions, for example, would only be phased out as Iran complies with terms of the deal, rather than lifted all at once, as Iran has demanded, said the senior U.S. official who spoke on Monday to reporters traveling with Kerry.

Pressuring Iran

Iran’s oil minister Bijan Zanganeh said in Tehran on Monday that if oil sanctions are lifted, Iran could boost its daily exports by 1 million barrels within a few months. Zanganeh said the return of more Iranian oil to the global market would have little impact on prices. Before oil sanctions were imposed in mid-2012, Iran exported 2.5 million barrels a day. Today, exports are estimated at 1 million barrels.

Kerry’s public drumbeat that a deal must be reached by month’s end may be an effort to light a fire under Iran’s negotiators, and it reflects political pressure the Obama administration faces from Capitol Hill. Congressional leaders have said they won’t permit any more extensions of the talks and have threatened to pass a bill that would grant Congress the legal right to kill the deal.

While U.S. officials have said Iran had agreed to convert its heavy-water reactor at Arak to prevent it from producing plutonium that could be used for weapons-grade fuel and that progress had been made in discussions over uranium enrichment, Salehi, Iran’s atomic energy director, appeared to dispute that on Saturday.

Heavy Water

Iran is resolved to keep the heavy-water reactor, as well as an underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordo, Salehi said, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

“The function and nature of the Arak heavy-water reactor will remain unchanged,” Salehi said, though the reactor would produce less plutonium than earlier envisaged. He said Iran is also determined to continue enriching uranium at Fordo, an underground plant in a mountain near Qom, according to the guidelines from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election today, and other critics of the Obama administration’s negotiations say restricting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear program for a minimum of 10 years is not enough. They’re calling for tougher economic penalties now to force the Islamic Republic to abandon uranium enrichment forever and accept intrusive monitoring that would last indefinitely.

If a political deal is reached this month, it’s not clear yet if its elements would be detailed in a written document, though Congress would get detailed classified briefings on anything that may emerge, one U.S. official said. If a framework is reached, it would have to include technical and quantitative elements, a second administration official.

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