Representatives to the talks on Iran’s nuclear program said last week that the final version of a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was finally being drafted. But DEBKA Weekly’s sources caution that the powers are still far from inking any sort of deal.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was fairly blunt in his assessment of the situation June 20, when he commented: “We have entered the phase of drafting the agreement, but we can’t say we have agreed on a common thing as we have not reached an understanding over essential subjects.” He stressed that Iran would not relinquish its “rights” in the nuclear realm.
The US and Iran are still at odds about major components of the nuclear program, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington and Jerusalem report. But Washington and Tehran have begun work on a final version of the pact to keep up appearances and the hope of finding the path to compromise in the process.
Still standing in their way are disputes between US and Iran on Iran’s timeline for building a bomb, the Arak heavy water reactor, the number and type of centrifuges for enriching uranium, and the quantities of future uranium enrichment.
1. The negotiators are at odds over how quickly Iran should be allowed to progress from the nuclear threshold to actually building a bomb, if it decides to do so. Our sources report that US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman last week agreed to let Iran keep the technological means for constructing a bomb within a year, including the necessary amount of enriched uranium.
Israel enraged by the generous US timeline
This concession enraged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who declared it flies in the face of promises given him by three top US officials, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
Netanyahu wasted no time in going on the PR offensive.
In a June 22 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the prime minister said he hoped the Obama administration would not ride to a deal with Iran on the back of their newly-shared interest in countering The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
(See other items in this issue for more on the situation in Iraq).
“A good deal,” he said, “is actually what was negotiated by the United States and President Obama in the case of Syria’s chemical weapons. You haven't solved the problem in Syria between Sunnis and Shiites, but you did remove the bulk of the weapons and soon all of the weapons, and the stockpiles.”
But in the case of Iran, what is being discussed by the international community, he said is “you remove most of the sanctions and Iran gets to keep most of the capabilities, most of the stockpiles, most of the ability to manufacture the means to make nuclear weapons. You removed them.”
Netanyahu: “A monumental mistake”
“What is, I think, being discussed in the case of Iran by the international community is that you remove most of the sanctions and Iran gets to keep most of the capabilities, most of the stockpiles, most of the ability to manufacture the means to make nuclear weapons. That's a terrible mistake.
“I hope it doesn't come to pass because I think this would change history. It would be a monumental mistake. In the context of the world at large and the Middle East as it is today, this would be a tragic, tragic outcome.”
Netanyahu’s concerns focus on the stalemate on several points in the talks leading to Western concessions:
2. Iran has rejected a US demand to convert the in-construction plutonium reactor at Arak into a light water plant unable to produce plutonium for bomb fuel. The Iranians did agree to consider restrictions on plutonium production,, but not a complete stoppage.
3. There is still no US-Iran concurrence on the number and types of enriched uranium-producing centrifuges the Iranians will be permitted to operate. The US is set on a 3,000 limit and the use solely of the older IR 1 models, whereas Iran holds firm on up to 20,000 centrifuges including the newest, super-fast enrichment technology.
Iran inflexible on enriched stocks, Fordo and Parchin
4. The US has accepted Iran’s entire stock of low, 3.5-percent grade enriched uranium, but insists on a cap on future production.
Tehran claims it needs much larger quantities to power the chain of nuclear plants projected for construction by Russia on the model of Bushehr. On June 24, the Islamic Republic announced it expects to sign in late August a transaction with Russia for two 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors, in support of its case that the additional enriched uranium is earmarked for civilian energy, not bombs.
Washington answered that when construction actually began on those reactors, the US would consider expanding the permissible enriched uranium quotas to meet their requirements. But the Iranian delegates insist on enlarged quotas being allowed at once.
5. Tehran has shown no sign of budging on the Fordo underground enrichment plant or accepting US proposals for altering its functions. Fordo must remain in working order, they insist.
6. Iran also rejected a US-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggestion that international inspectors be allowed to inspect the Parchin military nuclear complex, some 30 kilometers southeast of Tehran, where the Iranians are suspected of conducting nuclear explosive tests.
Despite repeatedly running head first into Iran’s walls, Obama is forging ahead in his attempts to eventually reach an advanced interim deal, failing a comprehensive accord. But given Iranian stubbornness, further progress will likely entail further American concessions and turn Netanyahu’s fears into reality.
(For more on Iran’s position and the fraught domestic debate on the nuclear issue in Iran, see a separate item in this issue).