In new nuclear talks, technological gains by Iran pose challenges to the West

GENEVA — Iran is expected to make an offer on Tuesday to scale back its effort to enrich uranium, a move that a year ago would have been a significant concession to the West. But Iran’s nuclear abilities have advanced so far since then that experts say it will take far more than that to assure the West that Tehran does not have the capacity to quickly produce a nuclear weapon.

With thousands of advanced centrifuges spinning and Iranian engineers working on a plant that will produce plutonium, which also can be used in a weapon, Iran’s program presents a daunting challenge for negotiators determined to roll back its nuclear activities.

Both sides enter the nuclear talks that begin here on Tuesday with inherent strengths and weaknesses. Iran walks in with a nuclear program that cannot easily be turned back, while the West has imposed sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

And if Iran is going to maintain the right to enrich uranium to even low levels, as it continues to insist it must, the West will surely demand highly intrusive inspections — far more than Iran has tolerated in the past. How these matters are resolved will go far in deciding the success or failure of the talks.

In 2003, when Iran struck its only nuclear deal with the West, it had a relative handful of somewhat unsophisticated centrifuges. Today, Iran has at least 19,000, and 1,000 of those are of a highly advanced design and have been installed but are not yet being used to enrich uranium

That is more than enough, experts say, to transform low-enriched uranium from the 3 percent to 5 percent range to weapons grade in a few months. That would provide Iran with a so-called breakout capability that is unacceptable to the West and Israel, even if, as expected, Iran proposes a moratorium on enrichment to 20 percent.

“Ending production of 20 percent enriched uranium is not sufficient to prevent breakout, because Iran can produce nuclear weapons using low-enriched uranium and a large number of centrifuge machines,” said Gary Samore, a senior aide on nonproliferation on the National Security Council in President Obama’s first term.

In addition, Tehran is nearing completion of a heavy-water reactor that would be capable of producing plutonium for nuclear bombs, another factor that Western experts say argues for far broader constraints.

The talks in Geneva are the first between Iran and the United States and five other world powers since the election of Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who took office in August and has made a priority of easing the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear activities.

A series of conciliatory messages and speeches from Mr. Rouhani and other Iranian officials — capped by a phone call to the Iranian president from Mr. Obama last month — has helped foster the most promising atmosphere for negotiations since 2003, when Mr. Rouhani was Tehran’s lead nuclear negotiator.

A senior American official said on Monday that the United States was heartened by the change of tone in Tehran and believed that Mr. Rouhani’s election signaled a sincere intention by Iran to chart “a more moderate course.”

But the official also said that the United States and its partners were still waiting to see if Iran would take concrete steps to constrain the pace and scope of its nuclear program, limit its growing stockpile of enriched uranium and be more open about its nuclear activities.

“We are going to make judgments based on the actions of the Iranian government, not simply its words, although we appreciate the change in its tone,” said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol.

As hopeful as the Obama administration may be, a number of issues may prove contentious in the P5-plus-1 talks, so called because of the involvement of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — and Germany.

In hinting that they will accept some constraints on their nuclear program, for example, the Iranians have emphasized that they want quick reciprocal steps to ease sanctions.

American officials have said that they are prepared to reciprocate, and the United States delegation here includes a senior expert on economic sanctions: Adam J. Szubin, the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department.

But the United States is reluctant to withdraw the most effective measures, especially sanctions that have cut off Iran from the international banking system, until the main issues are solved.

Any easing of sanctions would be “proportional to what Iran puts on the table,” said the senior American official, who added that the Iranians would most likely “disagree about what is proportionate.”

Another potential obstacle is Iran’s insistence that its right to enrich uranium be acknowledged now as part of the negotiations under which it would accept constraints on its nuclear activity.

The senior American official said that Iran had a right to a civilian nuclear energy program and that the United States was now prepared to talk about a “comprehensive” solution. But the official would not say whether Iran should be allowed to produce enriched uranium at home or be limited to acquiring nuclear fuel from other nations.

“We are prepared to talk about what President Obama said in his address at the U.N.,” the senior official said. “That he respects the rights of the Iranian people to access a peaceful nuclear program. What that is is a matter of discussion.”

Even if the West yielded on the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, the two sides would have to overcome Tehran’s resistance to extensive verification measures. The problems they face in that respect are apparent at the sprawling Parchin military base just outside of Tehran.

Iran says that only regular military activities take place behind Parchin’s barbed wires and high fences. But the International Atomic Energy Agency says the site may possibly hold clues to past work on a nuclear weapon.

Tehran allowed inspectors onto the base twice in 2005 but has rebuffed further requests. Iranian officials have said that the inspectors are allowed to visit each of the country’s 17 declared nuclear facilities, warehouses and related workshops, but not military bases and other locations that have nothing to do with its nuclear program.

Iranian officials say they will not accept what happened in Iraq in the 1990s, when international inspectors played cat-and-mouse games with the Iraqis and the C.I.A. planted people on inspection teams in Iraq.

“There is more at stake here than only our national sovereignty,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst based in Tehran. “We don’t want inspectors running around the country freely. Iran is not a nuclear program with a country; we have far bigger security concerns than just the nuclear program.”

But Wendy Sherman, the State Department official who is leading the American delegation here, recently told Congress that “verifiable” steps to stop Iran’s program were needed because “deception is part of the DNA.”

Even as Iran has pressed its case, the Obama administration has faced pressure from Israel and members of Congress who are deeply suspicions of Iran and wary of removing sanctions. On Monday, 10 senators sent a letter to Mr. Obama arguing that Iran should freeze the enrichment of uranium and take other steps just to avoid the imposition of further economic sanctions.

Ray Takeyh, a former State Department expert on Iran who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, underscored the obstacles to a quick breakthrough.

“Both sides are victims of their success today,” Mr. Takeyh said. “Iranians have a mature nuclear program that they are reluctant to trade. The Americans have a substantial sanctions regime that they are averse to dismantling for anything but measurable Iranian concessions.”

By The New York Times


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