Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks

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Iran and six world powers are closer to agreement on possible technical modifications for the uncompleted Arak reactor that would greatly reduce proliferation concerns, bolstering negotiators’ confidence as they try to reach a final nuclear deal by July 20th, Iranian and US non-proliferation experts briefed on the discussions said.

The Arak issue “is almost solved,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator now at Princeton University, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“I think Arak has been the big area where there has been a narrowing” of differences between Iran and the P5+1, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“Both sides are being positive in their remarks,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of this positive spin [is that] they are reaching a solution to Arak.”

The possible compromise framework, Mousavian said, is “almost the same” as a plan proposed by a team of Princeton University nuclear experts led by Frank von Hippel in an article entitled ‘A Win-Win Solution on Iran’s Arak reactor,’ that was published this month by Arms Control Today.

“I believe Tehran and the US both agree this framework can work to resolve” the matter, Mousavian said.

Under the plan proposed by von Hippel and colleagues, “the amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically” by converting “the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel,” they write. “With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt,” from the reactor’s currently-planned 40-Mwt design, “further reducing plutonium production,” they write.

Their redesign proposals “would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor,” the authors write.

“At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research,” they wrote. “Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community.”

Such modifications, that would “reduce the overall power level of the reactor, and thus decrease the amount of plutonium available in the spent fuel it yields, would indeed significantly reduce the proliferation threat,” Jofi Joseph, a former US government Iran non-proliferation expert said.

“However, this compromise could still run into political opposition from Israel, Gulf States, and the U.S. Congress,” Joseph added, because it still “allows Arak to remain a heavy water moderated reactor. …[which] is not necessary for the production of medical isotopes.”

Mousavian estimated that about 60-70% of the issues for a final nuclear deal may be tentatively agreed or nearly agreed–a slightly more upbeat estimate than the 50-60% offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Vienna earlier this month.

US negotiators have previously said that no issue is agreed until all of the issues are agreed, and have compared the complex negotiations to a Rubik’s cube.

Among the outstanding issues still to be resolved are Fordo and the overall size of Iran’s enrichment program and the duration of limitations on its size, experts said.

Former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution last month, proposed that Fordo be converted into a Research & Development facility. He also proposed that Iran and the P5+1 could arrive at a compromise on the size of Iran’s enrichment program by defining its practical needs, which are limited in the medium term.

(Photo: This Aug. 26, 2006 file photo shows an aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak. AP Photo/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi, File)

U.S. expects drafting of Iran final nuclear deal to begin in May


Six world powers and Iran are on pace to start drafting the text of a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord in May, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by the July 20th expiration of the six month interim deal, a senior U.S. official said Friday ahead of the third round of final deal talks in Vienna next week.

“We have set out a work plan on how to proceed to get a comprehensive agreement…and we are on pace with that work plan and look to begin drafting in May,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a conference call briefing Friday.

“All of the parties are committed to finishing within the six-month [duration of the] Joint Plan of Action,” the official said. “I am absolutely convinced that we can.”

“So the real issue is not about whether you can write the words on paper,” the U.S. official said. “It’s about the choices Iran has to make, some very difficult, in order to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.”

“They will have to make some significant changes and some significant choices,” the official said. “But the drafting is certainly doable.”

There have been no additional US-Iran bilateral meetings outside of those that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran meetings in Vienna and been announced, another senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Friday.

As to whether it is accurate to detect that US officials are expressing more confidence about reaching a final deal, in particular in the six month time frame without needing an extension since comprehensive deal talks got underway, the second U.S. official affirmed that may be the case.

“I think you’re right to say increasing confidence since the talks started – everyone has kept their commitments in implementing the JPOA, we’re having substantive and detailed discussions about the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement,” the second senior U.S. official said.

But “we are still clear-eyed about how tough this will be,” the second U.S. official added. “The real question is if everyone is willing to make the tough choices this will require.”

The first two rounds of comprehensive deal P5+1/Iran talks to date, supplemented by intensive expert-level talks, have been used to “to go over every single [element of] a future agreement and to make sure we understand each others’ positions on those issues, both at the macro level and the technical level,” the first senior U.S. official said.

Even the early rounds of comprehensive deal talks focused on agenda setting and “laying the table” for drafting the comprehensive accord have been “quite substantive,” the official said.

“When you lay the table, you get down to…serious issues…and in those discussions, one begins to see areas of agreement and areas where [there are] still gaps that have to be overcome,” the official said.

The official spoke in the wake of the release of reports this week by the former top State Department Iran arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, and a Princeton nuclear expert team, that propose ways Iran could keep but modify key facilities in its nuclear program in a final deal, while reducing international proliferation concerns and extending its nuclear breakout time to between six months and a year. Iran has insisted that it be allowed to maintain a domestic enrichment program and that it would not dismantle key facilities, but has expressed willingness to make modifications to the Arak reactor.

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Framework text: U.S., Russia reach deal to remove Syria chemical arms

The United States and Russia have reached a deal on a framework for removing all of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in Geneva Saturday.

Under the framework agreed after three days of negotiations in Geneva, Syria would declare all of its chemical weapons sites within seven days, allow inspectors on the ground and access to any site by November, and the removal of the weapons from Syria for destruction by mid-2014. (Full framework text, released by the State Department, below the jump).

“The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitment,” Kerry told a packed news conference in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva Saturday, the Associated Press reports. “There can be no games, no room for avoidance, or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime.”

“We have committed to a standard that says, verify and verify,” Kerry said.

The framework would mandate the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to report on Syrian compliance or noncompliance with the agreed measures to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, under Chapter 7 of the UN charter.

“In the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter,” the framework states.

Arms control advocates hailed the deal as a breakthrough, although one whose implementation will be challenging.

“While there are many further, challenging steps ahead, the agreement is an unprecedented breakthrough that would deny the Assad regime access to this dangerous arsenal and significantly reduce the risk that the government can use chemical weapons again, either inside Syria or against neighboring states in the region,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote Saturday.

The deal was reached ahead of the expected release on Monday of the UN chemical weapons inspectors’ report on the August 21 alleged chemical weapons attack on the Damascus outskirts that the U.S. said killed over 1,000 people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that the report would show “overwhelming” evidence that a major chemical weapons attack had taken place. He also said, in remarks he reportedly did not realize were being broadcast on the UN in-house television station, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has committed many crimes against humanity,” and should be brought to justice after the war.

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P5+1 hopes new Iran nuclear team responds to Almaty offer

Diplomats from six world powers will meet in Brussels next week in anticipation of resuming nuclear talks with Iran in September, following the inauguration next month of Iran President-elect Hassan Rouhani.

Political directors from the P5+1 will meet in Brussels July 16th, a western official said Wednesday.

The meeting comes as western capitals signaled they hope the new Iran nuclear team selected under Rouhani responds substantively to a confidence-building proposal they presented to Iran at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

“We look to a new Government in Iran to give a comprehensive response to the E3+3’s proposal for a confidence building measure, and to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told British parliament Wednesday (July 10).

“We will respond in good faith to positive action by Iran,“ Hague said. “We are ready to improve our relations on a step by step basis, but no one should doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation.”

Hague's comments suggest western capitals have decided for now against pivoting to a “go big” offer when they resume talks with Iran, possibly in early September.

“The P5+1 is asking for a serious response to their serious proposal, which they did not receive [from Iran in the spring] because the Iranians were not in the mood to bargain just weeks before their elections,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“What everyone needs to recognize is that the proposal put forward in Kazakhstan in the spring is the opening position, it is not a take it or leave it proposition,” Kimball said. “It’s in Iran’s interest to offer a counter-proposal in September, or whenever the talks might occur.”

Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, who hosted the last two rounds of Iran nuclear talks, said that Rouhani’s election has made western officials somewhat hopeful about the prospects for progress.

“We hear different commentaries on this election, but the prevailing one is of hope,” Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told Al-Monitor in an interview in Washington Wednesday. “Internally, [the Iranian people] voted for changes, for development.”

“Mr. Rounani in his own remarks has made very clear he wants greater engagement with the rest of the world,” Idrissov said. “And to create a more conducive environment for growth and development in Iran. There is potential for nuclear talks. It’s a hopeful situation.”

In his meetings this week, including with lead US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, American officials have “shared sentiments of hope,” Idrissov said. “Now it’s important, that this period of hope translates into practical things. Kazakhstan is a well-wisher. It would be wise by all parties to seize the moment.”

(Photo: Iran President Elect Hassan Rouhani speaking at a press conference in Iran June 17, 2013. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP.)

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US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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White House WMD czar short list

Gary Samore, who is heading to Harvard to become executive director of the Belfer Center,  had his last day at the White House on Friday, after serving four years as President Obama’s “WMD czar.”

The White House said no final decision has been made on who will succeed him. Arms control experts said there has been a closely-held short list of three or so prospective candidates under consideration, that narrowed further in recent weeks.

Among the names the Back Channel hears is on the short list is Samore's top deputy, Laura Holgate. Several diplomatic and arms control expert sources, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel they understood that Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State non-proliferation official now in London, may also have been under consideration. He declined to comment. A couple other people mentioned as prospective candidates, contacted by the Back Channel, denied they were in the running and said they were staying put in their current jobs.  Continue reading

Big changes afoot in Obama Iran, arms control teams, as Samore departs

U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Samore, talks during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in BrasiliaA key member of President Obama’s Iran negotiating team is leaving. White House WMD czar Gary Samore will depart the administration to become executive director of the Harvard University Belfer Center, the center said in a press release Tuesday.

The departure of Obama’s top nonproliferation advisor comes as the United States and five world powers are aiming for new nuclear talks with Iran the last week of February, possibly in Kazakhstan, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel Tuesday.

Samore’s exit, at the end of the week, is only one of several anticipated changes to the Obama Iran, arms control and Middle East teams expected to shake out over the new several months, even as the administration has vowed not to let the transition shuffle cause any distraction from its Iran policy efforts.

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Obama urged to step up diplomacy on Iran


A growing chorus of national security experts from across the political spectrum is urging President Obama to pursue bolder diplomacy with Iran, including offering Iran a nuclear deal that would include sanctions relief.

“We know Iran is prepared to make a deal on 20% enrichment,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran advisor, said at a Brookings Institution foreign policy panel Thursday. “It’s low-hanging fruit. … Now is the time to get that deal.”

But getting it, she adds, will require President Obama to “elevate and intensify the diplomatic dialogue,” as well as offer some sanctions relief.

“The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date, and at least as inventive as the sanctions themselves have proven,“ Maloney wrote in a “memo to the president” published Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

The calls on President Obama to boost his Iran diplomatic game come at a paradoxical moment: Iran diplomacy is stuck, but a deal is in sight. There's increasingly broad consensus on the terms of an interim nuclear deal that many observers believe could be had. And the recently reelected US president, enjoying higher approval numbers going into his second term than throughout much of his first, is widely perceived to have the political space to offer more carrots if it would clinch a deal.

The uncertainty is Iran. Western negotiators are discouraged by the recent difficulty in getting Iran to even agree on the date and venue for resumed nuclear talks with the P5+1. Though consultations continue, no agreement on a new meeting date had been firmed up as of Thursday, American and European diplomats said.

“Tehran was asking [the] P5+1 about their new package prior to meeting,” former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian told the Back Channel Thursday. The “P5+1 was not ready to reveal [it] before the meeting. Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail and as always Tehran would be blamed.”

Perhaps defensive about their perceived stalling on new talks, Iranian officials signaled they were trying to set the agenda for the new meeting. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Barbara Slavin reported for Al-Monitor Jan. 14th.

“I think we sometimes read too much into Iranian foot dragging,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Back Channel. “Anyone who’s spent time in Tehran traffic or dealt with Iranian government agencies knows that efficiency and promptness are in short supply, especially on such a sensitive issue in which there may not exist an internal consensus.”

Reflecting the discouragement of American officials at the delay, he added: “When interested parties can’t agree on a date or location for a negotiation, it doesn’t portend well for the negotiation itself.”

That familiar and frustrating dynamic is in part what is driving a growing number of diplomats and policy analysts to urge Obama to take a less politically cautious approach, by signaling Iran that the United States is prepared to sweeten the deal, in return for greater Iranian transparency and inspections.

Two dozen former diplomats and experts, including former ambassadors Tom Pickering and James Dobbins, urged Obama “to direct your team vigorously to pursue serious, sustained negotiations with the Iranian government on an arrangement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran,” in a Dec. 20th letter, organized by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association.

“Iran has insisted on two benefits from a deal: sanctions relief and nuclear enrichment,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at The Atlantic this week. “An agreement is more likely if these issues are addressed with a generous offer.”

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