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former IAEA Director-General

Little Progress Seen in Iran Talks
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By Kelsey Davenport

President Barack Obama last month urged Iran to take advantage of a “historic opportunity” to reach a nuclear agreement with the United States and five other world powers, but after a week of talks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said negotiators made little progress.

In his Sept. 24 speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly session, Obama said it is possible to negotiate an agreement that meets Iran’s energy needs and assures the world that Tehran’s program is entirely peaceful.

Rouhani, speaking to the same body the following day, also used the term “historic opportunity.” But at a Sept. 26 press conference, he said progress had “not been significant” and movement toward an agreement had been “extremely slow.” 

Obama’s and Rouhani’s remarks came a week after the resumption of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the six powers known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters on Sept. 26 that there were “no significant advances” during the round of talks. A senior U.S. administration official said in a separate press event the same day that the parties “do not have an understanding on all major issues” and that Iran will need to make some difficult decisions to conclude a comprehensive agreement. 

An interim deal reached by Iran and the P5+1 last November set a target date of July 20 for reaching a comprehensive agreement, but allowed for an extension of the talks if all parties agreed. (See ACT, December 2013.) On July 19, Iran and the P5+1 agreed to extend negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal through Nov. 24. (See ACT, September 2014.)

Before the talks resumed on Sept. 18, several of the six countries, including the United States, met bilaterally with Iran to discuss the nuclear negotiations. 

Although Obama and Rouhani did not meet, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met twice to discuss the nuclear talks. 

Kerry and Zarif met again, with Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief and leader of the P5+1 delegation, on Sept. 25 to discuss how to move forward on the remaining issues. 

In addition to the bilateral meetings, a number of plenary sessions and technical meetings took place from Sept. 18 to Sept. 26. 

Ashton had requested that the foreign ministers from all seven countries be available for a ministerial-level meeting if she needed to “consult them collectively” but that proved unnecessary, Ashton spokesman Michael Mann said Sept. 26. 

Talks are expected to resume in mid-October.

Uranium Enrichment

Iran is determined to “enjoy its full nuclear rights under international law,” including uranium enrichment, and is committed to a deal that “removes concerns” from both sides, Rouhani said in his address to the General Assembly.

Determining the future size and scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is one of the most significant obstacles that negotiations must resolve before the Nov. 24 deadline. 

The P5+1 wants to reduce Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity and put limits on other elements of its program, including the stockpiles of enriched material and the types of new centrifuges that Iran is developing. These limits would increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to enrich uranium to provide enough weapons-grade material for one bomb. In such material, more than 90 percent of the material is uranium-235. Iran currently is enriching uranium to less than 5 percent U-235. 

Iran says it needs to increase its uranium-enrichment capacity to provide fuel for nuclear power reactors it plans to build. 

At an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Sept. 17, Zarif said Iran does not need to increase its uranium-enrichment capacity in the near term. Russia provides fuel for Iran’s sole nuclear power plant, Bushehr, under a contract that lasts until 2021. 

To produce the fuel for Bushehr domestically, Iran would need a tenfold increase in its uranium-enrichment capacity. But Zarif said Iran “does not need all these centrifuges tomorrow” or in a year’s time. Iran has time to demonstrate the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and therefore “establish the type of confidence that is required” by the international community before Tehran can expand its uranium-enrichment capacity, Zarif said. 

The P5+1 has said it wants limits to Iran’s program for a period of at least 10 years. Zarif said that if Iran cannot establish international confidence in its nuclear program in five years, then “a deal is meaningless.” 

New Proposal Reported

On Sept. 19, The New York Times reported that the P5+1 had proposed disconnecting Iranian centrifuges that are installed but not currently enriching uranium. 

Typically, 174 single centrifuges are connected with pipes to form a cascade for enriching uranium more efficiently.

Iran currently has about 10,200 first-generation, or IR-1, centrifuges producing uranium enriched to less than 5 percent, which is suitable for nuclear power plants. About 8,000 additional first-generation centrifuges and 1,008 second-generation centrifuges are installed but not operating. 

According to the Sept. 19 article, the P5+1 proposed that, as part of a deal, Iran remove the pipes that connect the centrifuges. This would prevent Iran from quickly beginning enrichment using the machines, but does not require removing the centrifuges, which Iran says it will not do. 

A Western official familiar with the talks said that disconnecting the pipes is only “one element of a larger proposal” to limit Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity. In a Sept. 24 interview, he said that “other factors are being considered and discussed.” 

Those comments are consistent with remarks made by a senior Obama administration official in speaking more broadly about the potential deal at a Sept. 18 press briefing. The official said that there are “many components” to a deal that ensures that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. The official said that the elements must “come together in a way that gives us and the international community confidence that the program is exclusively peaceful and Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon.”

A spokeswoman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said on Sept. 23 that Iran had not accepted or rejected the idea of disconnecting the pipes. 

Members of Congress expressed concern about the prospect of disconnecting the pipes between centrifuges. 

In a Sept. 19 letter to Kerry, 31 Republican senators, led by Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), asked the administration if it was willing to accept anything less than complete dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment program and the partially built Arak heavy-water reactor. The reactor, which Iran says is designed to produce isotopes for medical purposes, would produce plutonium that is particularly suitable for nuclear weapons once it is separated from the spent fuel. 

Negotiators have said that before the decision in July to extend the talks, they made progress on agreeing to decrease the plutonium output of the reactor.

Posted: October 1, 2014