Updated: U.S. denies mulling extension on Iran talks

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Updated 7/2:

Washington, D.C. __ The US on Monday denied that it is signaling that it is prepared to have to extend Iran nuclear talks into the fall if Iran does not return to the table with more realistic proposals including on the centrifuge capacity it could be expected to have in a final deal.

A senior US administration official, briefing small groups of Washington experts in recent days, has been downbeat about prospects for reaching a final deal by July 20, Al-Monitor reported Sunday, citing sources briefed by the official. One expert, speaking not for attribution, was left with the impression that the senior U.S. official “didn’t think it would get done.”

Update: “The United States is not signaling that we are prepared to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations, period,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told Al-Monitor Monday. “We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date.”

“Of course, Iran will have to make tough decisions and the administration remains clear that no deal is better than a bad deal,” Harf said.

“We are not there yet,” however, a US official told Al-Monitor Friday, about whether the administration thought it would require an extension.

The US needs to determine “whether we see a mindset [from Iran] that is more realistic about what the outcome will have to be here,” the U.S. administration official told Al Monitor Friday. “We are not just waiting for a response…. There are discussions.”

Experts from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold technical talks in Vienna next week (June 5-6) on the sidelines of an IAEA board of governors meeting. The P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to hold the next round of final deal talks in Vienna on June 16-20.

With less than two months to go ‘til a July 20 expiration of an interim Iran nuclear deal, the US and Iran are not yet pursuing parallel bilateral meetings to narrow wide differences for a nuclear deal, US and Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor. That may be because the US and P5+1 believe that Iran is going to have to do most of the modifying, particularly on enrichment capacity, if a final deal is to be reached, US experts recently briefed by Obama administration officials tell Al-Monitor.

“The Iranians know what the bottom line is,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert now at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor Friday. “This will not be a case of meeting in the middle.”

“It will be difficult for the powers to reach an agreement with Iran by the deadline of July 20,” Robert Einhorn, a former top US Iran arms control advisor, told Israel’s Ynetnew.com Sunday. “The last round of talks didn’t amount to expectations. There was hope that some main issues would be solved, like the issue of the reactor in Arak…but that didn’t happen.”

“My assessment is that when faced with the alternative of ending the talks, the two sides will agree to extend them,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Ynet.

“The odds of success are still long,” President Obama told graduating West Point cadets Wednesday, referring to a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal. “But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement — one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. “

The American side and the P5+1 “had sticker shock at what the Iranians came in on in Vienna,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Friday, referring to the Iranian proposal for the amount of centrifuges it would like to have in a final deal at the last round of talks in Vienna in May.

The Iranians seemed to have “the impression that the P5+1 was desperate for a deal, but it’s actually not true,” Clawson said. “Therefore they [the US and P5+1] are prepared to let the Iranians” stew in the impasse for now, and may not be rushing to send the bilat team to meet with them to try to narrow positions.

“There will be no final nuclear deal without direct US and Iran bilateral talks,” former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian told an audience at the New America Foundation in New York last week.

The U.S. may yet pursue face to face meetings with Iran at a future point in the negotiations, U.S. sources told Al-Monitor, but hasn’t to date this year done so, outside of those meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran talks.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday that he would not be able to attend a June 18 meeting of Organization of Islamic States foreign ministers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia due to the Iran P5+1 nuclear talks previously scheduled to be held in Vienna June 16-20, Iranian media reported.

Iran, EU negotiators meet in Istanbul

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Monday, along with their aides, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Monday, even as the EU stayed mum on the meeting, first reported by Al-Monitor.

The meeting started around 4pm Monday and continued over a dinner at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, Iranian media said. It is expected to continue Tuesday morning.

“The two sides will discuss [the] latest developments on [the] nuclear dispute and positive steps are expected to be taken to this effect,” the Iran foreign ministry website said.

Zarif, upon arrival in Istanbul, told reporters that it is a meeting between his team and Ashton and her aides, and is not a meeting of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), the foreign ministry website noted.

A spokesman for Ashton told Al-Monitor Monday that he had no comment on and could not confirm any meeting. It was not clear why the EU has been unwilling so far to acknowledge the meeting.

U.S. officials were not expected to attend, Al-Monitor was told.

Update: EU High Representative Ashton “held very long and useful discussions” with Iran Foreign Minister Zarif, EU foreign policy spokesperson Michael Mann said in a statement Tuesday. “They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.”

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks will be held June 16-20 in Vienna, Mann said, adding that Ashton and Zarif are recommending a round of experts level talks be held before that. “Other political discussions will happen as and when needed.”

Zarif held over eight hours of discussions with Ashton over the past two days, Iranian media cited Iranian officials Tuesday.

(Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking to reporters upon arrival in Istanbul May 26 from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.)

Iran, EU negotiators expected to meet (Updated)


Top Iran and European Union nuclear negotiators are expected to meet in Istanbul on Monday, Al-Monitor has learned, though representatives of neither side would confirm the meeting date or venue.

“They will meet in Istanbul on Monday and perhaps Tuesday,” a diplomatic source, speaking not for attribution, told Al- Monitor Sunday., referring to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Zarif Ashton meeting is expected to start Monday afternoon in Istanbul, the diplomatic source said.

After Al-Monitor’s report on the unannounced meeting Sunday, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported that Zarif and Ashton were to meet in Istanbul this afternoon and continue the next day.

The meeting comes as negotiators from Iran and six world powers are regrouping after sobering final deal talks in Vienna this month at which both sides seemed taken aback by the others’ positions, and urged their counterparts to return to the talks with more “realism.”

It is unclear why there seemed to be unusual secrecy about the Zarif-Ashton meeting, or why, if it’s to take place, it hasn’t been announced. No American officials are expected to participate in the meeting, Al-Monitor understood.

“I can’t confirm anything. i have no comment,” a spokesperson for Ashton told Al-Monitor early Monday, after Iranian media reported Zarif’s plane had departed for Istanbul to meet Ashton there. Ashton was thought to be returning from South Korea on Sunday, an EU official earlier said.

Zarif met with his Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Shanghai, China, but no visit was announced. Zarif is expected to attend a conference of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algeria later in the week.

At the first real comprehensive nuclear deal negotiating round in Vienna earlier this month, the Iranians were said to be shaken by a P5+1 proposal for a ten-year (or by one account, 20-year) plan for phased sanctions relief in a final deal, that Iran found much too slow. The Iranians were also described as having felt the U.S. position in particular had hardened in the most recent Vienna meeting, sources said. (US officials deny the US position has hardened or changed). The US also reportedly raised the ballistic missile issue with the Iranians, which Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said they refuse to discuss as they consider the missile program a sovereign defense issue outside of the P5+1’s nuclear purview.

Meantime, former US officials close to the US negotiating team have repeatedly implored Iranian negotiators to recognize that Iran’s expectations for the size of its uranium enrichment program have got to be lowered to reach a final deal.

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks is expected to be held in Vienna starting on June 16th. But US, Iranian and EU officials have said there will be additional consultations in different forms and at different levels in advance of those, as the parties aim to try to close a deal by the July 20th expiration of a six month interim deal.

Separately, the US-Iran bilateral channel that helped advance an interim nuclear deal last fall has not yet restarted during the final deal talks this year, outside of bilateral meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks, US and Iranian sources told Al-Monitor.

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a dinner in Vienna May 14, 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Enrichment capacity seen as key hurdle to Iran deal


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.)

‘Sticker shock’ meeting: Wide gaps as negotiators start drafting Iran accord


Vienna_ The first drafting round of Iran final deal talks ended with few signs of progress Friday, but negotiators from all sides said they had expected difficult moments along the way as they got down to negotiating the tough issues involved in a comprehensive deal.

It was a “useful, but at times difficult” meeting,” a senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in Vienna after the conclusion of the talks Friday. “But that is not entirely unexpected.”

“We knew there would be” such difficult moments, the U.S. official said. “We are at the beginning of the drafting process. We have a significant way to go. There are wide gaps. … We do not know if we will be able to conclude” a final deal by July 20, but that is still the goal.

The West should “overcome its illusions,” and return to the talks “with more realism,” a senior Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday night, when asked how to get the talks unstuck.

“Iran’s red lines” are well known, the senior Iranian official said. “There were no surprises” in the positions Iran presented here, he indicated.

Negotiators from the US and the European Union said they expected another round of political director meetings between Iran and the P5+1 to be held in June in Vienna, but would announce the dates later, as they determine if they need an additional meeting, as they aim to conclude an accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires.

The past three rounds of final deal talks held in Vienna this year have focused on agenda setting, and on putting all the issues on the table that need to be addressed in a final accord. This was the first meeting where we “now talked about ways to bridge those gaps,” a different, far more difficult process, the senior US official said.

The US and Iranian negotiating teams held a long, three hour bilateral meeting in Vienna Friday morning that State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf characterized as “serious and straightforward.”

Lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also joined in at the end of the last meeting Friday between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Asked by Al-Monitor if the US and Iran have had held additional bilateral meetings outside of the ones announced on the sidelines of Vienna, the US official did not answer yes or no directly. “I don’t have additional details for you,’ the official said.

We are obviously not going to be able to “resolve all our differences in four days in Vienna,” the senior US official earlier said. That’s “why in between sessions there are continuous expert level discussions, political director conversations,” etc. “I also foresee an increasing number of in-person meetings.”

“This was the ‘sticker shock’ meeting,” a former senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday.

“Significant differences remain on how many centrifuges Iran should be permitted to have to meet ‘practical needs’ for nuclear energy and research, as well as significant differences on the length of the agreement and the pace and scope of sanctions relief accompanying a final deal,” the former U.S. official said. “Other areas, like the possible military dimensions of past Iranian nuclear research, are also tricky.”

“So, instead of papering over these differences in a post-meeting statement, the negotiators apparently felt that they had to return to their capitals to consult with national leaders about how they might overcome them,” the former US official suggested. “It remains to be seen if that is possible, but both sides still appear committed to overcoming the nuclear crisis.”

(Photo of members of the US negotiating team-senior non proliferation advisor Jim Timbie, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Amb. Brooke Anderson, Treasury’s Adam Szubin, NSC Middle East advisor Rob Malley, State Department Persian language spokesperson Alan Eyre, walking out of Vienna’s Palais Coburg by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Negotiator: Iran talks ‘good but difficult’

Vienna__ Iran and six world powers are holding a second day of meetings here as they aim to progress to drafting the text of a final nuclear accord by the end of July, amid continued wide gaps in key positions.

Negotiators were tight-lipped, but by Thursday evening, when diplomats from six world powers broke for a joint dinner, it was not clear if the actual drafting of the text accord had begun, though one diplomatic source suggested that it had. Diplomats suggested that the process was on track and as expected at this fourth round of comprehensive deal talks.

“Talks are good but difficult,” Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said when he briefly emerged from the negotiating chambers at Vienna’s Palais Coburg hotel late Thursday evening for a dinner with the Iranian delegation. The talks are likely to wrap up Friday and are unlikely to continue on Saturday, he said.

The parties are negotiating “in good faith,” but “it’s difficult and slow,” Araghchi subsequently said.

“We knew this process was going to be difficult, and it has been,” a senior State Department official said Friday. “We need to see more progress being made.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held a “useful” three and a half hour meeting Thursday morning, followed by talks between their deputies and parallel expert level talks, and another Zarif Ashton meeting in the evening, Ashton’s spokesman Michael Mann said.

An Iranian source familiar with the Iranian negotiating team’s thinking, who spoke to Al-Monitor not for attribution Wednesday, identified three main challenges that needed to be addressed to bridge negotiating positions, from the Iranian perspective.

“The issue of ‘practical needs,’” for the size of Iran’s domestic uranium enrichment program, the Iranian source told Al-Monitor in Vienna Wednesday. “The time frame of an agreement… And the nature of sanctions relief.”

Iran’s Zarif made a presentation to Ashton on Tuesday, the Iranian source said, adding the two sides came to Vienna “with ideas, and the idea is to write [a draft text] together.”

“Here is the gist: our practical need is not just Arak,” the Iranian source said, referring to the centrifuge capacity to produce enough low enriched uranium to fuel the Arak reactor, under proposed modifications to the unfinished reactor that would reduce its proliferation risk.

Under a ten-year contract, Russia provides fuel for Iran’s Bushehr power reactor. But “in 2021, the fuel for Bushehr runs out,” the Iranian source said. “Why should we be forced to rely on Russia [for fuel for Bushehr] for a lifetime?”

“This goes back to the Iranian narrative of being self-reliant,” he said, noting the Iranian insistence on being able to domestically provide for its own domestic enrichment needs is “nothing new….It goes back 35 years.”

Regarding the time frame of an agreement, the Iranian source said that it is the Iran team’s expectation that “after the signing of a comprehensive deal, there will be an interim period,” where there will be restrictions on Iran’s program, “trust established, the IAEA will go in….there will be no undeclared facilities, and the [possible military dimensions issue] will be resolved. That’s the plan.”

But there has to be a “basis for the argument” for the duration of that interim period, the Iranian source said. If the restrictions should last for ten, 15 or 20 years, the parties have to “examine what is the basis. Why 20 years,” he said. “There is no technical basis.”

“What could serve as the basis for the timeline of this is past experiences with other countries that had concerns with their nuclear programs,” the Iranian source said.

“Libya—the worst example: a crazy dictator…a rogue state with no accountability….—[its nuclear case] was resolved in five years,” the Iranian source said. Japan’s case, he said, was resolved “in less than 10 years.” These past cases should be considered “to create a basis, use a precedent, a logical argument” for the duration of the agreement, he said.

On sanctions relief in a final deal, if the six-month interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action “showed anything, it is that partial sanctions relief is of limited use,” the Iranian source said. “The sanctions regime is highly interwoven….. actions on [lifting] oil sanctions, financial sanctions, they are of limited value separately.”

“Iran would not mind front-loading the final deal,” the Iranian source said, in which it would “take all the measures [agreed] at the beginning of the deal, and expect its counterpart to do the same.”

U.S. cautions Iran deal not imminent or certain

Vienna__ A senior U.S. official took a tougher line on prospects for reaching a final deal as negotiators from Iran and six world powers arrived here to begin the first drafting round towards a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord.

“Everyone comes to the table wanting a diplomatic solution,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in Vienna Tuesday. “But having the intention does not mean it will happen.”

“Frankly, this is very, very difficult. Though we are drafting… it does not mean agreement is imminent,” the U.S. official cautioned. “There are a range of complicated issues to address. We do not know if Iran will accept” taking the steps necessary.

I am not optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic, the US official said, in answer to a question about what seemed a notably less upbeat forecast about prospects for reaching a compromise than in recent earlier rounds focused more on agenda-setting. She was also reacting to what she said was speculation in the media about provisional agreement reached on aspects of a final deal, such as a solution to the Arak reactor, and a growing sense of optimism in media reports that a deal would be reached.

“What we are working on is a package,” the US official stressed, calling the prospective final deal document the Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Not a checklist. Each individual piece affects the overall outcome. …The only percentage that matters is 100%.”

“One can see how one can get to an agreement by July 20,” but whether we can “get to it is another matter,” the US official said. “This is very tough…. There are points of agreement, there are significant gaps. It is not that there is no solution. There are. Getting to them is another matter.”

The US official’s less upbeat tone on prospects for reaching a final nuclear deal is both meant to manage expectations as the hard bargaining really begins, and because serious differences remain in the two sides’ positions, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, and lead author of a major new report on solving the Iran nuclear issue, released last week.

“I have the impression that major sticking points remain,” Vaez told Al-Monitor in Vienna Tuesday. “There has been some progress, but still some contentious sticking points remain to be resolved and without them, there will be no agreement.”

Likening the closing weeks of the negotiations to a poker game, Vaez suggested that the negotiating atmosphere is likely “to get worse before it gets better.” It could “get to the point of almost breakdown before both sides reveal their real bottom line.”

This, the fourth round of final deal talks, kicked off Tuesday night with a dinner between Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and their top aides at the office of the Iran mission to the UN in Vienna. The full meeting begins Wednesday with a plenary meeting involving political directors from the P5+1 and Iran, chaired by Ashton and Zarif at the UN. It’s expected to continue at least through Friday.

Zarif, arriving in Vienna Tuesday, told Iranian media he expected at least three more rounds of political director talks before July 20, but those dates have not yet been announced.

The parties are “quite focused on the July 20 date” when the six month interim deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), expires, the US diplomat said. “We expect to negotiate every moment ’til then.”

(Photo: Reuters.)

Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks


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. releases funds to Iran as IAEA verifies compliance with nuclear deal


The United States said Thursday that it has released the latest tranche of $450 million to Iran based on verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that Iran is complying with the terms of a six month interim nuclear deal.

The announcement came as US officials said that the US has taken steps to resolve problems Iran was alleged to have had accessing some funds.

“We can confirm that we have taken the necessary steps in all good faith pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action to facilitate the release of certain Iranian funds in the installments agreed,” a Treasury Department spokesperson, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to its Board of Governors this week that Iran has diluted 75% of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium since the six month Joint Plan of Action went into effect on January 20th, Reuters reported Thursday.

“Based on this confirmation and consistent with commitments that the United States made under the Joint Plan of Action, the Department of Treasury took the necessary steps… to facilitate the release of a $450 million installment of Iran’s frozen funds,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Thursday.

“As Iran remains in line with its commitments under the JPOA, the the US … will continue to uphold our commitments as well,” Harf said.

Iranian officials, under fire from hardliners suspicious of the nuclear negotiations, echoed the assessment that the six world powers were delivering the sanctions relief promised in the deal.

Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and nuclear negotiator, told Iran’s IRNA news agency Tuesday that to date, four installments of Iran’s frozen oil sale proceeds have been released to Iran per the deal’s terms, and that the “Central Bank of Iran has no problem in having access” to the funds, IRNA reported  Wednesday.

A fifth installment was expected to be released on Wednesday, IRNA cited Ravanchi.

Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is to receive a total of $4.2 billion in its oil sale proceeds held in foreign bank accounts, delivered in eight installments over six months, based on IAEA verification of its compliance.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif likewise defended the nuclear negotiations this week and said he believed both sides wanted to get a final deal and were negotiating in good faith.

“There is the political will to get an answer,” Zarif told Reuters in Abu Dhabi April 15th.  “The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good deal. Of course some people will never be satisfied but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society.”

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers have held three rounds of talks in Vienna this year and are set to begin drafting the text of a final nuclear accord at their next meeting in May, with the aim of trying to conclude an agreement by the July 20th expiration of the interim deal.

Ahead of the fourth round of talks, to be held in Vienna starting on May 13th, experts from Iran and the P5+1 will hold expert-level talks on the sidelines of a NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York the first week of May, Zarif said this week.

Iran nuclear diplomat known to U.S. as tough, professional

When lead US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi and their teams met on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna this week, US officials described the now commonplace encounter between the U.S. and Iranian delegations as “useful and professional.”

“It’s now normal,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, described the bilateral meeting with Araghchi to journalists at a briefing in Vienna on April 9. “We met for about an hour and a half. … We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views.”

“Mr. Araghchi is a very professional negotiator and also a tough negotiator,” Sherman told Al-Monitor by email on April 11.

Araghchi, 53, the lone holdover from Saeed Jalili’s nuclear negotiating team, has previously served as Iran’s envoy to Japan, Asian affairs deputy and, briefly during Iran’s presidential campaign and transition last summer, as the spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since Hassan Rouhani tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator last August, Araghchi has been a key player in the nuclear talks that produced an interim deal last November, and a principal interlocutor in bilateral discussions with the United States aimed at advancing a comprehensive nuclear accord.

While Zarif’s willingness to engage with US officials was perhaps not surprising — the affable Iranian diplomat spent almost 20 years in the United States, earning graduate degrees and serving as Iran’s UN envoy in New York during the moderate Mohammad Khatami administration — his deputy Araghchi is less well-known to Western audiences.

Though Araghchi earned a doctoral degree at Kent University in the United Kingdom and speaks fluent English, he is not one of Zarif’s so-called “New York gang” or “New Yorkers,” as the Iranian diplomats who studied in the United States and served with Zarif in New York have been dubbed at home. A career diplomat who ascended under then-Iran Foreign Ministers Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi, Araghchi is “not political,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. But it turns out that Araghchi was not entirely unknown to US officials before he was tapped as Zarif’s deputy last August and became part of the Iranian delegation that secretly met with U.S. officials a half dozen times in Oman, New York and Geneva last fall to try to advance a nuclear deal.

Interviews with former officials by Al-Monitor and US diplomatic cables indicate that Araghchi had a previous engagement with the Americans, at a regional summit in Iraq in March 2007, in which he impressed one observer as “extremely professional,” and constructive in the proceedings, in a rare departure from what were otherwise frustrating and unproductive US-Iranian encounters on Iraq at the time.

Araghchi subsequently appeared on the Americans’ radar as a highly effective and press-savvy Iran ambassador to Japan in 2008, in a move some US diplomatic interlocutors read as an effort by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to “protect” Araghchi from Iran’s hard-line then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US diplomatic cables show. Other US cables suggest that Araghchi played a quietly helpful background role in urging for the release of an Iranian-American reporter acquaintance, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January 2009.

“Araghchi is a young, personable, polished and accomplished diplomat who presents well, argues his case calmly and rationally and who is clearly at ease making public presentations and dealing with the press,” then-US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer wrote in a March 2008 diplomatic cable to Washington about his newly arrived Iranian diplomatic counterpart in Tokyo.

One Japanese diplomat “told Embassy Tokyo,” Schieffer’s cable continued, that then-former “Foreign Minister Taro Aso speculated after meeting him … that if the US and Iran were to resume diplomatic relations, Araghchi would be a likely candidate to become ambassador to Washington.”

Araghchi, then — as now — Iran’s deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, led Iran’s delegation to a summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Baghdad in March 2007, attended as well by then-US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and then-State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield. The meeting came amid growing US frustration at Iran’s support for Iraq “special groups” conducting attacks against US-led coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran denied providing such support, while at the time making repeated overtures to the Americans that it would be interested to engage on Iraq, US cables show. The United States pursued several trilateral meetings with the Iranians on Iraq during 2007, but ultimately determined they were fruitless and counterproductive. But not so at the first meeting attended by Araghchi in March 2007.

“That recollection stays with me … the wholly professional conduct of the Iranian delegation, but particularly the Deputy Foreign Minister [Araghchi], which was quite striking,” a firsthand observer of the meeting, who requested to speak anonymously, told Al-Monitor in an interview on April 10. Continue reading