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)

Centrifuge R&D seen as holdup in implementing Iran nuclear deal

Differing interpretations over whether Iran can conduct research on more advanced centrifuges under a nuclear deal signed last month is among the key issues to be resolved for the agreement to enter into force, nonproliferation experts suggested Sunday.

Technical experts from Iran and six world powers are scheduled to resume talks on implementing the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva on Monday, December 30th.

“What may be happening here is that Iran has notified the P5+1 that it plans to install additional IR-2M centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility at Natanz where it has historically conducted centrifuge research and development,” Jofi Joseph, a former US official who worked on Iran nuclear issues, told Al-Monitor.

“Throughout the diplomatic talks that culminated in the Geneva agreement, Iran has insisted upon the right to continue unfettered research and development for its centrifuge program that should fall outside any limits on its centrifuges producing enriched uranium,” said Joseph, who recently wrote about potential pitfalls to the Nov. 24 interim Iran nuclear deal at the Atlantic Council website. “The P5+1 always pushed back, seeking to protect against a scenario where Iran could use this R&D loophole as a back door to expand its centrifuge capacity even as a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement took effect.”

The Joint Plan of Action, signed by Iran and the P5+1 November 24th, states that: “Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.”

“The P5+1 likely interprets this language to mean that Iran will not expand the level, scope,or sophistication of its centrifuge R&D beyond existing practice,” Joseph suggested. “While Iran probably takes a more expansive view, arguing instead that, so long as it not expanding the numbers or types of centrifuges in the production-related areas of Natanz or Fordow, it remains in compliance with the Geneva agreement.”

Iranian negotiators did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday if that was the main issue holding up the JPA entering into force. But Iranian officials seemed to allude to the matter in comments to Iranian news media this week. “A new generation of centrifuges is being built, but they should undergo all tests before mass production,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and MIT-educated former Iranian foreign minister, was cited by Iranian news media as saying Sunday.

“The negotiations are proceeding slowly as there are misunderstandings over interpretation of some elements of the accord,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Mehr News Agency, the AFP reported Sunday, adding that “ff expert-level talks are fruitful, a date [for implementing the deal] will be decided, which I guess will be at the end of January.”

The parties should be able to resolve such ambiguities and differences to make way for the JPA entering into force, nonproliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday.  “This is not a technical problem,” Hibbs said. “There’s a huge amount of documentation – reams and reams and reams of technical discussion between Iran and the US, [on] how to do this….[there are] lots of ways of skinning the cat.”

Negotiators in Geneva last fall, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made the deal in a hurry. “Now what they need to do is nail down all the technical details,” Hibbs said. “What needs to happen [to] close on some of this stuff is just very complicated…for example, verification procedures…questions about what specific piping they have to inspect, who gets access, all these things.”

“The real problem is not that there cannot be a technical solution. Because there can,” Hibbs said. “The real problem is [that] the absence of closure on technical details [could] reignite all of the latent lack of trust.”

But he did not think the parties would let the agreement break down. The Obama administration sees the agreement as “confidence-building; there’s a premium on deal-making,” Hiibbs said. “And the Iranians, like anyone else, want to get the best deal they can.”

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool.)

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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