Iran and six world powers made progress last month toward concluding a comprehensive nuclear agreement, but significant gaps remain, negotiators from the two sides said.
Iran and the six powers known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) met June 16-20 in Vienna for a fifth round of talks since February aimed at reaching a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The two sides reached an interim agreement Nov. 24 and began implementing it Jan. 20. (See ACT, December 2013; March 2014.)
At a June 20 press conference, Iranian Foreign Minister and lead nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran had expected negotiations to be difficult but could not accept the “excessive demands” made by the P5+1. Zarif said that the Iranian negotiating team wants to reach an agreement but it must “protect the rights” of Iran.
Zarif appeared to be referring to differences between Tehran and the P5+1 on the size of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. Iran wants to expand its capacity to enrich uranium for nuclear power reactors that it says it plans to build, but the P5+1 wants Iran to reduce its enrichment program. (See ACT, June 2014.) Iran currently has 10,200 first-generation centrifuges enriching uranium.
U.S. lead negotiator Wendy Sherman said in a June 20 statement that the talks are at “a very crucial moment” and that the negotiators would be “working around the clock” until July 20 to reach a deal.
The negotiators aim to conclude the agreement by July 20, which is the date when the six-month interim agreement is set to end. That agreement can be extended for another six months with the agreement of all of the parties.
Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said it is “still unclear” if Iran is “ready and willing to take all the necessary steps to assure” the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful. She said a “good agreement is obtainable” if Iran is serious in its insistence that it does not want to develop nuclear weapons.
Despite the gaps, the two sides made progress on a draft of the agreement, Zarif said. According to Zarif, the two sides found “some areas of agreement” and moved forward on the general framework of the deal, but differences on content remain. He said that Iran will continue negotiations as long as talks are useful but that the P5+1 must adopt a “realistic approach” to the terms of an agreement.
‘Working Document’ Developed
A senior U.S. administration official told reporters at a June 20 press briefing that the parties now have a “working document” that resulted from “serious, constructive discussions” but “an enormous amount of very hard work” remains.
Zarif said that the six countries negotiating with Iran are “not necessarily close on all issues” and need to negotiate with one another.
The administration official said that “national positions are never identical” but the six countries were able to work through different positions and “remain unified.”
Senior officials from the P5+1 met among themselves in Brussels on June 26. Talks among the technical experts are to resume July 2.
The talks in Vienna were preceded by a bilateral meeting June 9-10 in Geneva between U.S. and Iranian officials to discuss the nuclear negotiations. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who led back-channel negotiations with Iran last summer, joined the delegation for those talks.
In a June 16 press call before negotiations resumed, the senior U.S. administration official said that bilateral talks were part of the “intensification” of U.S. efforts to reach an agreement before July 20. U.S. and Iranian officials described the bilateral meeting as positive.
Burns was not present at the June 16-20 meetings, but Sherman said in her June 20 statement that he might rejoin talks later if it would be helpful “to advance the process.”
IAEA Sees Compliance
The latest monthly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on implementation of the first-phase agreement found that Iran is continuing to follow through on its commitments.
In January, the IAEA began issuing special monthly reports on Iranian compliance with certain aspects of the November agreement. These reports are in addition to the agency’s quarterly reports on Tehran’s nuclear program.
The June 17 report found that Iran has nearly eliminated its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent.
Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to this level was a key concern for the P5+1 during negotiations preceding the Nov. 24 agreement. Uranium refined to 20 percent is more easily enriched further to weapons grade than if it begins as reactor-grade uranium, which is enriched to less than 5 percent.
When implementation of the interim agreement began Jan. 20, Iran had 209 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent, according to the IAEA. Experts estimate that 240 to 250 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium is enough to make a bomb if further enriched to weapons grade, or above 90 percent.
As part of the Nov. 24 deal, half of the 20 percent-enriched uranium, or about 104 kilograms, is to be converted to a powder form that can be used to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. As of the June 17 report, Iran had converted 100 kilograms, leaving its stockpile of enriched uranium hexafluoride gas at 4 kilograms.
Iran agreed to dilute the other half of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium to an enrichment level of less than 5 percent. According to the IAEA’s May report, Tehran completed the dilution in April. (See ACT, June 2014.)
In its June report, the IAEA said Iran has begun to commission a facility to convert uranium enriched to less than 5 percent from hexafluoride gas to a powder that is used to make fuel for power reactors. But the report said Iran had not yet begun conversion. Under the first phase of the deal with the P5+1, Iran committed to convert all of the reactor-grade enriched-uranium gas it produced over the course of the six months of the agreement to a powder form.