Closer, but still no deal on Iran

WASHINGTON — As the Iran nuclear talks reach roughly the halfway point in the six-month timetable for negotiating a comprehensive agreement, both sides report slow, steady progress in closing gaps — but no deal yet.

A positive sign was a tentative plan floated this month to reduce the threat posed by Iran’s heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. When I talked in Tehran with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in December, Arak appeared to be a deal-breaker. But negotiators seem to have found what they like to call a “win-win” solution.

The Arak compromise formula was outlined recently in the journal Arms Control Today. It proposes feeding the reactor with low-enriched fuel and operating it at lower power. The output would be more of the medical isotopes Iran says it needs and much less of the plutonium that the West fears could fuel a bomb.

“The issue is virtually resolved,” said Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Akbar Salehi last week. The agreed proposal is “to redesign the Arak reactor and to reduce its plutonium production to one-fifth.”

Officials close to the talks note several interesting aspects of the first rounds of discussion, as negotiators push toward a tentative deadline of July 20:

— Russia has continued to play a constructive role, despite President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational behavior in Ukraine. U.S. officials believe that Putin genuinely doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran, and that he sees Russia’s role as an international power enhanced by its partnership in the P5-plus-1 coalition. The nuclear talks give Putin influence he would be reluctant to give up.

— Iran continues to mix its pragmatic stance in the negotiations with stridently anti-Western rhetoric, most recently in Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s March 21 message for the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz. Khamenei’s speech included one passage describing the Holocaust as “uncertain” and in another proclaiming that Iran had a “resistance economy” that could defy Western sanctions.

— A sign of Iran’s pragmatism, amid its leader’s bombastic rhetoric, was Salehi’s comment that Iran had “no problem” with opening its military site at Parchin to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

— Negotiators on both sides appear to be taking seriously the six-month bargaining timetable set in the interim deal reached in Geneva last November that temporarily froze Iran’s nuclear program. The official negotiating clock started ticking Jan. 20.

— U.S. and European officials initially believed a rollover of the interim freeze might be needed, adding another six months after July 20. But there now appears to be renewed focus on the deadline — partly because Iran wants relief from sanctions, and partly because November’s U.S. elections may yield a more conservative Congress that’s less supportive of an agreement.

Iranian and Western negotiators are now beginning to draft proposed language for a final, comprehensive pact. They’ll begin comparing those texts next month, officials expect.

The trickiest remaining problem is the limitation of enrichment by Iran to a level consistent with a civilian nuclear program. The Geneva agreement affirmed Iran’s “right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” including a “mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures.” But what will such language mean in practice? Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges; how many would have to be mothballed?

Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in Senate testimony this month that the U.S. goal was to extend Iran’s current “breakout” time for producing enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb from “about two months” to something longer. “So six months to 12 months is — I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for — but even that is significantly more,” Kerry said.

A detailed explanation of possible formulas was published last month by Robert Einhorn, formerly the State Department’s top arms-control official. He noted that Iranian breakout time would be 12 months if it were allowed to operate 6,000 new generation IR-1 centrifuges with a stockpile of only 500 kilograms of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. If the number of centrifuges were cut to 2,000 and Iran were allowed 1,500 kilograms of 3.5 percent material, the breakout time would lengthen slightly to 12 to 14 months.

Negotiators will be focused on such highly technical calculations over the next three months, as the clock ticks. The deeper question is whether Khamenei’s Iran is really ready for fundamental accommodation with the West. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace rightly cautions: “I don’t see how you can get a technical resolution to what’s essentially a political conflict.”

The details of a possible agreement are visible, but not yet the will in revolutionary Iran to compromise.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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