Tehran and the major powers have agreed to keep talking, but progress remains elusive on the core issue of Iranian centrifuges.
WASHINGTON — The issue of Iranian uranium enrichment remains as stubborn an obstacle to a nuclear deal as it was at the launch of the talks six months ago.
Iran and the major powers, led by the United States, agreed July 18 to extend the talks another four months, citing progress in a number of areas.
But the potential deal breaker remains: Iran does not want to reduce its number of its centrifuges, and the world powers on the other side of the negotiating table will not accept Iran maintaining its current capacity for uranium enrichment.
Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, proposed in a July 14 interview with The New York Times that Iran verifiably keep its enrichment to low levels of between 3 and 5 percent, but that the centrifuges keep spinning. Iran is believed to have 19,000 centrifuges in place. The major powers, again led by the United States, want Iran to lower the number to 5,000, according to reports, to increase the time it would take for Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s stubbornness should come as no surprise, said Michael Adler, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington who has covered Iran’s nuclear program since the 1990s. He said Iran has steadily been building its enrichment capacity since 2003.
“The Iranians have not changed the thrust of their tactics at all; they’re still trying to accumulate an industrial level of enrichment and they’re not backing off,” Adler said in an interview this week. “This is no different than any of the ‘Iranian Springs’ we’ve had in the past.”
U.S. officials say the disagreement over dismantling centrifuges is a significant one.
"Important gaps" remain between the parties, a senior administration official briefing reporters on the extension said last Friday.
“We, for instance, have highlighted the issue of domestic enrichment and the number of centrifuges that Iran would be operating as a part of the agreement as one very important remaining gap that has to be worked through,” the official said.
Secretary of State John Kerry in announcing the extension said the Iranians have abided thus far by the strictures of the interim agreement that set up the current round of negotiations. But he also stressed the disagreements that remain.
“It is clear to me that we have made tangible progress in our comprehensive negotiations, but there are very real gaps in some areas,” he said.
The interim deal that facilitated the talks in January rolled back some sanctions placed on Iran in exchange for reducing some of its nuclear capability.
Areas of progress included agreement on re-purposing the nuclear reactor at Fordow, which is built into a mountainside, and a plutonium reactor at Arak, Kerry said, as well as a rigorous inspections regime.
An area of disagreement he mentioned was the Natanz enrichment complex, where about 10,000 centrifuges, including 1,000 advanced centrifuges, are installed.
Many observers say the Obama administration cannot settle for less than a dismantling of most of the centrifuges. U.S. officials have said that allowing 5,000 centrifuges to remain in place may be acceptable.
“I have a hard time seeing the P5+1 one accepting an industrial-sized centrifuge program with just inspections,” said Alireza Nader, an analyst with the Rand Corp., using the term that describes the six world powers negotiating with Iran: the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
“The Obama administration has to sell this program in the United States,” said Nader, who believes the talks have been productive. “The Iranian government has to be cognizant by political realities here.”
An inspections-only deal would not work, Nader said, in part because the Iranian regime in the past has conducted much of its nuclear expansion in secret.
Most dramatically, Iran built a bunker-like enrichment facility in a mountainside at Fordow that was only later discovered by Western intelligence agencies.
“To say that after years of deception, the P5+ 1 will accept greater industrial capability just for greater inspections is not realistic,” Nader said.
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that has consulted closely with congressional skeptics of the nuclear talks, also said not dismantling centrifuges was a nonstarter.
“No deal is possible without dismantlement,” Dubowitz wrote in an email. “The Obama administration will not be able to sell a deal that is based on inspections alone since no inspections regime — even a ‘go-anywhere, go-anytime’ one that the Supreme Leader will never accept — could prevent an Iranian regime with a decades-long record of nuclear mendacity from developing a clandestine nuclear breakout capacity.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it was “deeply disappointed” by the terms of the talks extension, particularly in the provision of $2.8 billion in sanctions relief in addition to the $4 billion to $6 billion already available under the interim agreement.
“We must find new means to step up pressure on Tehran,” the group said in a statement Monday. “And Iran must verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program or face harsh consequences for its ongoing violations of treaty commitments and international law.”
An AIPAC source said the group was exploring with lawmakers “the best course to increase pressure on Iran.” A number of lawmakers want to revive legislation that would trigger new sanctions if talks fail. The AIPAC source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the organization continues to back that measure, which the Obama administration opposes.
Israel continues to call for a complete dismantling of all the centrifuges — something Obama administration officials have said is unrealistic.
“We hope the international community will stand firm and not agree to a deal where Iran does not fully dismantle its nuclear weapons program,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said Monday in an address to the annual gathering of Christians United for Israel.
Adler of the Wilson Center questioned whether Iran would reverse course and start dismantling centrifuges after years of carefully building up its capacity, particularly at a moment of instability throughout the region.
He said the disarray in neighboring Iraq, where Iran is working with the U.S.-backed government to counter an extremist Sunni insurgency, and even Russia-Ukraine tensions mitigated the isolation that helped bring Iran into the talks.
“Iran is emboldened by changing situations that either obfuscate the Iranian issue or give them a feeling that they are enfranchised,” Adler said. “The Iranians don’t feel they have to yield. I mean, Iran looks like the solution in Iraq, think of it!”
Heather Hurlburt, a senior fellow for national security at Human Rights First, said global instability was, if anything, a spur toward keeping the talks on track.
“The deal is in everyone’s interest, and the other crises underline why the deal is in everyone’s interest,” said Hurlburt, a former foreign policy speechwriter in the Clinton administration. “The Iranian government is not in an enviable position financially. It is bleeding money supporting allies in Iraq, Syria and Palestine.”
Nader said the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran were too high for the sides to be distracted by other crises.
“Despite all the tensions between Russia and the United States, it hasn’t complicated the nuclear talks,” he said. “That’s why we haven’t seen a lot of division within the P5+1. The alternatives are pretty terrible to a negotiated settlement."