Iran nuclear talks resume amid deep caution

VIENNA–The U.S. and Iran voiced caution over the prospects of a final deal permanently curbing Tehran’s nuclear program on the eve of international negotiations in Austria’s capital.

The diplomacy in Vienna, slated to last six months, follows a landmark interim agreement reached in November between Tehran and global powers that froze some parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of Western economic sanctions.

But American and Iranian officials both warned Monday that the new round of diplomacy–aimed at permanently ending what the West views as Iran’s nuclear weapons threat–will be much more difficult to conclude.

The Obama administration has outlined a negotiating position that calls for Tehran to drastically roll back its nuclear infrastructure to ensure its program is solely for peaceful purposes.

U.S. officials have said this likely would have to include the dismantling or mothballing of thousands of Iran’s centrifuge machines, which are used to produce nuclear fuel, and the shuttering or conversion of nuclear sites.

Senior Iranian officials repeatedly have responded that they won’t accept any major curtailment of their program. Tehran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday said he’s doubtful there will be a diplomatic breakthrough, though the Islamic cleric said he still backed the diplomatic process.

“What our officials started will continue. We will not renege,” Ayatollah Khamenei told a crowd in Tabriz, according to Iranian state media. “But I will say again: There is no use…it will not lead anywhere.”

Senior U.S. officials attending the Vienna talks gave a slightly more upbeat prognosis and repeated President Barack Obama’s opinion that the talks had a 50-50 chance of succeeding. But they also acknowledged that there was a reason for skepticism.

“We don’t know if at the end of these six months, we will be able to achieve a comprehensive agreement, but we aim to,” said a senior American diplomat in Vienna. “As President Obama has said–and I quite agree–it’s probably as likely that we won’t get an agreement as it is that we will.”

The talks in Vienna are scheduled to run through Thursday and involve Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, a diplomatic bloc called the P5+1. Iran is represented by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif while the P5+1 is headed by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

U.S. and European officials said Monday no major breakthroughs are expected this week and that the talks would largely focus on sketching out how the diplomatic process should advance.

Among the topics negotiators will seek to define is exactly which issues the two sides must resolve and in what sequence, how often and in what format negotiators should meet, as well as what work can be pushed ahead at lower levels by technical experts from Iran and the P5+1.

“We are basically setting the table for the negotiations,” said the American diplomat.

However, once process questions are addressed, a host of tough, politically sensitive issues will need to be confronted at a time when the Obama administration is under pressure in Congress to impose fresh sanctions on Iran if its doesn’t make concessions. U.S. allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, have expressed skepticism about the engagement with Iran.

Washington’s nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, has testified in recent weeks that the U.S. sees no need for Iran to have either an underground uranium enrichment facility or a heavy water reactor in the city of Arak as part of a final agreement. Iranian officials have said the facilities would remain, but suggested there may be technical avenues to reach a compromise.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said this month that the Arak reactor could be converted in ways to limit the amount of weapons-usable plutonium it produces. U.S. officials in Vienna welcomed Mr. Salehi’s comments as possibly offering a diplomatic way forward.

Iran also must answer in the coming months allegations by the West and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Tehran has conducted secret research to develop atomic weapons.

Tehran has denied the charges, but is under pressure to allow the IAEA’s inspectors access to Iranian scientists and military facilities believed to have been used to conduct weapons research.

The IAEA and Iran reached an agreement this month that allows the agency’s staff greater access to a number of Tehran’s uranium mines, research sites and the Arak reactor. But former IAEA staff believe significantly more access is needed to address the U.N.’s concerns.

Olli Heinonen, a former chief IAEA weapons inspector, said Tehran still must answer to evidence that it was designing ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads and experimenting with developing an implosion device to cause a nuclear detonation.

“A comprehensive deal–including uranium enrichment–can only be reached if uncertainties over Iran’s military nuclear capability are credibly addressed,” Mr. Heinonen wrote in a paper for Harvard University’s Belfer Center.”

By The Wall Street Journal 


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