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.)

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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Roundup: Obama to dine with Miss Israel; Iran's man in Iraq

US sees hopeful sign in Iran pausing 20% stockpile

The Obama administration sees a potentially encouraging sign in the fact that Iran held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer, the New York Times reports. However, analysts note that Iran subsequently resumed growing its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium in the fall and suggested the Iranian leadership’s intentions remain unclear.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had diverted almost half its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium for medical use, thus keeping its stockpile of the higher enriched fuel steady at 91kg between May and August.

“One American official said the move amounted to trying to ‘put more time on the clock to solve this,’ characterizing it as a step ‘you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated,’” the New York Times’ David Sanger and James Risen reported Thursday (Dec. 27).

However, the latest IAEA Iran report from November shows that diversion of 20% fuel for medical purposes had not continued in the fall. Rather, Iran resumed adding to its 20% stockpile, which had grown to almost 135 KG by November 18th. (It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to weapons grade — 90% purity–to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.)

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel the explanation for the temporary diversion is simple: Iran has now produced enough 20% enriched uranium to build the fuel rods needed for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. Thus, “from now on and as a confidence building [measure], Tehran [can] try either to convert or to slow down the production amount,” Mousavian said by email Friday.

However, given that the pause in Iran’s growth in its 20% stockpile did not continue into the fall, some Iran and arms control analysts expressed puzzlement at the US official’s reported assessment of the development, noting it comes amid a lot of mixed signals.

“There’s a real effort to indicate that things are going swimmingly and that a resumption of talks is imminent,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel Friday, adding his own view is that is “overly optimistic.”

“With the latest evidence”— that Iran had resumed growing its 20% stockpile—“there is less of a reason” to be confident in what Iran intended to signal with its diversion of 20% uranium for medical purposes last summer, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann told the Back Channel Friday. “Not that it removes it entirely. It still applies.” Continue reading

Israeli Defense Minister publicly divulges US intelligence report


Israel’s Defense Minister raised some eyebrows in the United States when he told Israel Radio Thursday that a new, previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program.

Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that there is “apparently a report by American intelligence agencies – I don’t know if it’s under the title NIE or under another title – which is making the rounds of high offices,” in Washington, CBS News reported.

“As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates,” Barak continued. “It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program.”

Generally, foreign leaders don’t publicly disclose allied nations’ classified intelligence reports in such a provocative manner, intelligence experts said.

“The rules of the spy game are clear,” former US Navy intelligence analyst John Schindler wrote on his blog. “When intelligence services share information, as they do every day, you don’t pass it to third parties without clearance. Ever. And if you do, eventually you will get burned and nobody will want to play marbles with you.”

A cavalcade of top American officials have traveled to Israel in recent weeks to confer on Iran, and President Obama this month signed a $70 million US military aid package for Israel. Israeli officials have expressed growing impatience with US reluctance to endorse military action on Iran at this time.

The Israeli Defense Minister’s comments followed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz Thursday which said that there was a new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. But several American former intelligence and security officials told Al-Monitor that the product is not an NIE, but a smaller, more focused report or series of reports on certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps related to suspected weapons-relevant research activity. Continue reading