Enrichment capacity seen as key hurdle to Iran deal

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Washington, DC__ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday offered upbeat reassurances about prospects for reaching a nuclear deal, even as negotiators from Iran and six world powers reported no progress from “sticker shock” nuclear talks in Vienna last week, and urged each other to return to the table next time with more “realism.”

With the “positive trend of talks, we are on threshold of solving [the] nuclear issue,” Rouhani said in China Wednesday.

Despite the intentions of both sides, Iran and world powers will not be able to reach a final nuclear accord unless Iran lowers its expectations for the size of its enrichment program, non-proliferation experts in consultation with the parties warned.

“I think Iran genuinely wants a deal,” former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But it may not yet realize that it can’t get one unless it is prepared to lower its sights on the enrichment capacity it will be allowed to have under an agreement,” Einhorn said.

“If a deal is to happen, Iran must make the strategic decision to forego a near-term breakout capability in the form of a sizable enrichment program,” Jofi Joseph, a former White House Iran non-proliferation advisor, said Wednesday. “If it is prepared to do so, a deal can come together quickly this summer. If not, then an impasse will occur.”

Iran was frustrated by the P5+1 proposal in Vienna for a decade or more time-frame for phased sanctions relief, and wants sanctions relief in a deal to be more front-loaded for steps it’s also willing to take on the front end.

The P5+1 “say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one,” over a period of ten years, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse reported Wednesday.

Iran also rejects that its ballistic missile program should be a subject for discussion with the P5+1, Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said.

The largest gap that has Iran deal watchers concerned, however, is between the expectations of Iran and the West over the size of Iran’s enrichment program.

“What matters most is whether the two sides can agree on a much more limited uranium enrichment program for near term,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor.

“Only if Iran meets its obligations, builds confidence its program not being used for military purposes, and Iran demonstrates it has legitimate nuclear fuel needs will the international community agree to relaxing those constraints,” Kimball said.

“The brinkmanship will continue until the last minute,” one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “My problem is the incompatibility of the two sides’ end objectives…maintaining nuclear capability vs. rolling it back.”

Sources suggest the Iranians would like to initially maintain the number of centrifuges they are currently operating under the six month interim deal–about 9,000 IR-1s – to be the starting amount in the near term of a final deal, that would be allowed to increase after some duration. At the end of an as yet to be agreed period in which it would agree to restrictions and extensive inspections, monitoring and safeguards, Iran wants to have its status as a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) normalized, so that it could in theory have no restrictions on the size of its enrichment program.

“I understand that Iran has indicated willingness to consider short term constraints on the size of its enrichment program, such as freezing at the current level of 9,000 operating IR-1s for a few years before gradually expanding to an industrial scale of 50,000 or more IR-1 centrifuge machines,” former Obama White House non-proliferation advisor Gary Samore said in a speech posted at the Harvard Belfer Center website this week.

Meantime, Congressional sources and Israeli officials would find a deal under which Iran operated 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges while maintaining a small stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium, allowing a one year “breakout” period, “politically defensible,” Samore wrote.

Getting Iran to agree to restrict the size of its enrichment program in the near and medium term is probably more important than how many centrifuges it says it wants after a decade or two, some non-proliferation experts said.

“I actually think if you could get to a near term agreement, that would make us feel comfortable over the next ten years, it would take care of itself,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst with the Arms Control Association, said Tuesday.

Sources expect Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet as early as this weekend to discuss how to bridge wide gaps in positions, ahead of the next round of talks in Vienna June 16th. US and Iranian sources did not immediately respond if U.S. officials would participate in the meeting or might meet separately.

(Photo of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attending a banquet in Vienna May 14 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Iran's Zarif meets Kerry to 'jump start' nuclear talks

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New York __ US Secretary of State John Kerry shook hands and met alone with Iran's new top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif for thirty minutes Thursday, in the highest level direct talks between the two countries in decades.

“We had a constructive meeting, and I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to possibilities of the future,” Kerry told journalists after the meeting.

“Now it’s up to people to do the hard work of trying to fill out what those possibilities could do,” Kerry said.

20130926-232156.jpgThe historic meeting between the top American and Iranian diplomats, with not even note takers present, took place in a room off to the side of a meeting of foreign ministers from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. When Zarif arrived, Ashton's deputy Helga Schmidt gave up her seat to him, placing Zarif between Ashton and Kerry. After Zarif made a twenty minute presentation to the group, Kerry leaned over to Zarif and suggested that they might meet privately, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

“We had more than a chat,” Zarif said after the meeting Thursday. “Now we have to match our words with action.”

He said the parties had agreed to try to reach a negotiated settlement on Iran's nuclear program within a year. “We agreed to jump-start the process so that we could move forward with a view to agree, first, on the parameters of the end game, how we want to proceed [regarding] Iran's nuclear program, in a year's time, and also to think about steps, starting with a first step, that should be implemented in order to address the immediate concerns of two sides, and move towards finalizing it hopefully within a year's time,” Zarif said.

“I'm optimistic,” Zarif said, speaking at the end of an event featuring Iranian President Hassan Rouhani convened by the Council on Foreign Relations and Asia Society Thursday. “This was a good beginning. I sense that Secretary Kerry and President Obama want to resolve this.”

Zarif “made a thoughtful presentation, he laid out what Iran's interests were, … and expressed a desire to come to an agreement and have it fully implemented in a year's time,” the senior State Department official said Thursday, stressing again that Zarif proposed both reaching and implementing a nuclear deal within a year.

“He laid out some thoughts that he had, what a process may look like, what elements might be in a first step,” the US official said. “Certainly some important things have happened here today.”

Ashton and Zarif along with political directors from the P5+1 will next meet October 15-16 in Geneva. The new Iranian leaders quickly agreed to a date and venue for the nuclear talks, whereas the former team would spend weeks negotiating over such logistical details, the State Department official said.

“Like the Minister [Zarif], I am very ambitious for what we can do,” Ashton said after the meeting. “But we all know that we have to be very practical in translating political ambition into…effective work on the ground.”

A proposed confidence-building measure presented by the six parties to Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last February “remains on the table,” Ashton continued. “Either the Iranian government can decide to respond directly to that, or it can put forward its own proposals.” She proposed that Iran shares its ideas before the next meeting in Geneva.

“If the Iranians agreed to establish a US-Iran channel on the margins of the P5+1, it's a good sign,” former top Obama nonproliferation advisor Gary Samore, president of United Against a Nuclear Iran [UANI], told Al-Monitor Thursday.

Barbara Slavin contributed reporting.

(Photo: European Union. Second photo: Jason DeCrow/AP.)

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