March 23 is the next deadline hanging over the current round of US-Iranian negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear accord – or at least for assent on its basic principles. Washington is clearly making the running in view of the six substantial concessions President Barack Obama has been willing to make to Tehran, as revealed here for the first time by DEBKA Weekly’s Washington and Tehran sources.
1. Iran will be allowed to keep 6,500 centrifuges spinning for enriching uranium. This is exactly the number functioning at present, and so Iran’s output of fissile fuel is permitted to remain unchanged at its current level.
2. The additional 9,000 machines installed and standing idle at the country’s enrichment plants will not be disconnected or disabled. This means they can be switched on and put into action at a moment’s notice.
3. Building work on the heavy water plant at Arak will continue until its completion. This concession allows Iran to acquire the capacity to manufacture plutonium as nuclear fuel as well as enriched uranium.
4. Tehran will no longer be obliged to answer the questions put by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the military work performed by its national energy commission, or about nuclear explosion tests carried out at secret sites.
5. International oversight for Iran’s performance in meeting its obligations under the nuclear deal with the United States will be no more stringent than the IAEA’s inspections of nuclear work in other countries, like Japan. Former agency demands will be dropped and its future inspections “non-intrusive.”
6. A time limit will be set for the lifting of all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear projects. That is the only clause still in dispute between the US and Iranian negotiators. Iran wants restrictions lifted completely in ten years, while the Americans prefer 15-20 years.
The vital missing piece for a nuclear accord
These concessions, which are coming together in the format of a memorandum of understanding between Washington and Tehran, have made President Obama sanguine about the chances of a deal being wrapped up by March 23 – or at the very least near enough to the final stages to convince Congress that they are well on the way toward a final document.
If he can say that most of the fundamental principles in dispute are settled, he will be in a position to ask Congress for more time for the last push to get the deal signed, sealed and packaged into a comprehensive accord.
At the same time, this optimistic presentation of the progress made in the nuclear negations would be misleading, because a vital piece is still missing.
Dealing across the table thus far are three pairs of negotiators: Obama versus Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani; Secretary of State John Kerry versus Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javed Zarif; and US delegation leader Wendy Sherman versus Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqhchi.
None have the slightest clue about where Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands on the deal, or even whether he is ready to buy Obama’s super-generous concessions.
Even odds for a nuclear deal
Some Washington circles suppose that Khamenei’s silence is a gambit for squeezing even more concessions from the Americans. However, some knowledgeable circles warn that Khamenei will have his work cut out to sell the deal to the hard-line Revolutionary Guards, especially their chief, Gen. Mohamed Jafary, who will never approve it.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and Iranian sources disclose that more is at stake even than the stiff task of talking the Revolutionary Guards chief round to an accord pulled off by his rival, President Rouhani.
It has become a matter of Ayatollah Khamenei losing face against his opponent, the former president of Iran Hashem Rafsanjani.
Accepting the nuclear deal with Washington now on the table would be an admission that Rafsanjani had it right for twelve years when he maintained stubbornly that a major controversy with the Americans on the nuclear issue was completely unnecessary, because Iran could achieve the status of a pre-nuclear power through diplomacy, which Obama’s concessions are now enabling.
But the supreme leader will be most reluctant to admit that Rafsanjani was right all along.
Hence the mutually conflicting predictions in Washington on the prospects of the nuclear accord with Iran: One camp insists a deal is close, whereas others are certain it will stay out of reach in the foreseeable future.