Iran and world powers hold their third round of talks in six weeks toward a nuclear deal that would break a decade-long deadlock in the face of opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are to meet today in Geneva. They’ll be joined in the negotiations by senior diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. Negotiations are expected to run at least through Nov. 22, according to organizers.
Public comments from Iranian and Western officials suggest a deal is close. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed yesterday in a phone call — the first such direct U.K.-Iranian contact in more than a decade — to “seize the opportunity” in Geneva, according to a statement from Cameron’s office.
“This could be the week the deal is done that sets Iran’s relations with the Western world off in a new positive direction,” Mark Fitzpatrick, director of non-proliferation at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.S. State Department diplomat, said in a phone interview.
President Barack Obama yesterday avoided making a prediction. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to close a deal this week or next week,” he said in remarks to a Wall Street Journal conference in Washington.“We have been very firm with the Iranians” about what is expected.
Obama — criticized by some U.S. lawmakers and Israel for an impending deal they say isn’t tough enough — met earlier with key Senate and House members. He urged them not to impose further sanctions on Iran while negotiators are making progress.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pushed back against domestic hardliners opposed to detente by renewing his support for negotiators today in a speech from Tehran.
“I insist on supporting officials involved in the negotiations,” Khamenei said. “There are red lines, limits and they have to be observed. We have instructed officials to abide by those limits.”
What officials are calling a first-step accord would constrain Iranian nuclear activities, while leaving its disputed uranium-enrichment program intact, in exchange for limited U.S. sanctions relief. Talks would proceed into next year on a comprehensive agreement intended to ensure Iran won’t be able to make nuclear weapons.
“Let’s test the proposition that over the next six months, we can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion, while maintaining the essential sanctions architecture,” Obama said at the Washington conference.
Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have criticized the potential deal, which falls short of United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding Iran halt all uranium enrichment.
Netanyahu has said the Jewish state may consider a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to ensure that Iran can’t make nuclear weapons. His former National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror told the Financial Times in an interview published Nov. 17 that Israel’s air force has been preparing for a possible military confrontation with Iran and could prevent its nuclear-weapons capability for “a very long time.”
The Saudis have also expressed skepticism about a deal with Iran, a Shiite Islam nation they regard as a threat to the Sunni kingdom and the region.
UN monitors verified last week that Iran had halted expansion of its most sensitive work after Rouhani assumed office in August. Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that materials aren’t diverted to weapons use.
The gaps between Iran and the West have shrunk, with Iran prepared to “accept measures that up to a month ago I didn’t expect them to accept,” said IISS’s Fitzpatrick.
The proposal on the table in Geneva would place a cap on the quality and quantity of Iran’s enriched uranium and the centrifuges used to make it, and also pause the construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, according to diplomats informed about the negotiations. If the reactor becomes operational, Iran could in time extract plutonium from it as an alternative to using highly-enriched uranium if it were to make nuclear weapons.
In return, the U.S. would ease sanctions on petrochemicals, gold, autos and civilian aircraft parts, and Iran would be permitted access to about $3 billion in frozen assets, according to the diplomats, who asked not to be named discussing the closed-door talks.
“The agreement under discussion would slow crucial elements of the Iran program, make it more transparent and allow time to reach a more comprehensive agreement in the coming year,” former U.S. National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft said in a joint statement. “Should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our non-proliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.”
While French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius helped kill an accord at the last meeting by insisting that reactor construction pause during negotiations, IAEA monitors reported Nov. 14 that Iran had already stopped building key elements at the facility.
“No major components, such as the control-room equipment, the refueling machine and reactor cooling pumps had been installed,” the IAEA said. Iran and the IAEA signed their first deal in six years on Nov. 11 that gives investigators wider access to Iranian facilities.
By halting expansion of its uranium enrichment activities, Iran is signaling a willingness to compromise, according to diplomats.
“There have been signals from Iran that they are going to refocus resources to converting uranium stocks, particularly the 20 percent stockpile, into fuel,” said Vienna-based Iranian physicist Behrooz Bayat, who has consulted with the IAEA. “Uranium enrichment is a negotiating tool for Iran. It as a strategic asset that can be used to seek a better negotiated agreement.”
Converting uranium enriched to 20 percent levels into metal fuel plates makes it more difficult to process it for weapons use. Iran says its program is peaceful, while the U.S. and other nations suspect Iran is seeking at least nuclear weapons capability.
One of the disputed issues has been Iran’s asserted “right” to enrich uranium, a process that can be used to make fuel for civilian power reactors or nuclear weapons.
The U.S. says there is no such right for signatories, such as Iran, to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty governing the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Further, the UN Security Council has demanded Iran halt all enrichment and council resolutions overrule such treaties, according to the UN Charter.
Iran now may be willing to sidestep the issue. While Iran’s “right of enrichment” is non-negotiable, there’s “no necessity for its recognition as a right” because it’s self-evident in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Zarif said on Nov. 17, according to Iran’s state-owned Iranian Students’ News Agency.
Obama’s flexibility may be constrained by the mood in Congress, reflected in a letter yesterday to Secretary of State John Kerry from six U.S. senators. They expressed doubts about any deal granting Iran sanctions relief without rolling back its nuclear program.
“It is our belief that any interim agreement with the Iranians should bring us closer to our ultimate goal which is Iran without a nuclear weapons capability,” said the signatories, Democratic Senators Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine.
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