Iran talks intensify with last-ditch attempt to reach agreement

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waits with others before a meeting with Britain, Russia, China, France, Germany, European Union and Iranian officials at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland Monday, March 30, 2015, during Iran nuclear talks. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are entering a critical phase with differences still remaining just two days before a deadline for the outline of an agreement. (Brendan Smialowski/AP)

With just two days remaining before a deadline, Iran and diplomats from six countries trying to negotiate a preliminary nuclear deal met Monday in a last-ditch attempt to resolve differences on enriched-uranium stockpiles, sanctions and future research into nuclear technology.

Talks were scheduled throughout the day between U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and foreign ministers Laurent Fabius of France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Wang Yi of China.

With no signs that a breakthrough was imminent, Lavrov, who arrived at the talks on Sunday evening, was already making plans to leave Lausanne on Monday afternoon. Russia has not been as intensely involved in the nitty gritty of negotiations as the United States has been, and it was not clear if his departure signified any pessimism toward an outcome.

Lavrov would return if there is a “realistic understanding of a deal,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

The top diplomats for Germany, France, Britain and China were not expected to leave, at least not on Monday.

Iran’s potential nuclear capability

 So many substantive issues are unresolved that the negotiators have not even had time to focus on whether they would commit their interim agreement — if they can reach one — to paper or not.

A senior State Department official denied Monday that there has been agreement on how to dispose of Iran’s enriched-uranium stockpiles. That became an issue when Iran’s deputy foreign minister told Iranian reporters late Sunday that Iran does not intend to send its stockpiles to Russia. That poses a possible wrinkle in the negotiations, because the world powers negotiating a deal do not want Iran to have enough enriched uranium on hand to be able to produce the fissile material needed to build nuclear weapons.

“The export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our program, and we do not intend sending them abroad,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said. “There is no question of sending the stocks abroad.”

However, Araghchi has made similar statements in recent months, and Tehran swiftly denied that any decision had been made on stockpiles.

The State Department official, who spoke about the sensitive talks on condition of anonymity, said the question of Iran’s stockpiles is still being negotiated.

“There is no question that disposition of their stockpile is essential to ensuring the program is exclusively peaceful,” the official told reporters. “There are viable options that have been under discussion for months, including shipping out the stockpile, but resolution is still being discussed.”

The goal, the official added, “is ensuring the amount of material remaining as enriched material will only be what is necessary for a working stock and no more.”

Officials in recent days have stepped up the pace of their meetings in advance of Tuesday’s deadline for a framework agreement laying out the principles for a final agreement to be completed by late June. Though they have continually reported the talks are making headway, they also caution that fundamental differences have not been settled and they may not succeed in getting an agreement.

The six countries want Iran to suspend its nuclear research and development for 10 years, but Iran has not agreed to the pace at which restrictions would be lifted over the ensuing five years.

Tehran has insisted that its nuclear weapons program is purely for civilian purposes and that it has no intention of building nuclear weapons. But Iran is willing to accept the restrictions in return for an end to international sanctions that have hobbled the economy.

The two big sticking points, according to a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations, are Iran’s research into more modern centrifuges that can separate and process uranium faster, and how fast United Nations sanctions can be lifted.

Several of the diplomats are rearranging their schedules so that they can remain at the talks for several more days.

The negotiations have grown more intensive, starting early in the morning and continuing until almost midnight. A U.S. official familiar with the talks said it would not be surprising if the negotiations come down to the wire, continuing through deadline day.

Negotiations started more than a decade ago, but they picked up momentum a year and a half ago after Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran on a promise to get sanctions relief.

Although nothing is considered settled until the parameters of the entire agreement are outlined, Iran has tentatively agreed that an accord would last 15 years and that sanctions would be eased gradually. Those represent concessions by Tehran, which initially wanted a shorter duration and immediate sanctions relief.

But differences remain over the details within those areas, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

One sticking point is timing: when Iran can expect to see at least some international sanctions lifted, particularly those imposed by the United Nations.

“We all have agreed, including Iran, that there needs to be a phased, step-by-step, reciprocal approach in any understanding that is reached. How we judge that, obviously, may be a little different on different parameters of the agreement, and that’s what a negotiation is all about,” the official said.

Another persistent disagreement, the official said, involves how much nuclear research and development Iran would be permitted to conduct over the final five years of a 15-year pact. Iran wants to modernize about 6,000 centrifuges it would be allowed to keep operating for civilian purposes.

“A lot of other pieces of the puzzle that sit on the table are not yet resolved,” the official said. “But they are the kind of puzzle pieces that most of us think will fall into place more likely than not if we get through some of these really tough, tough issues.”

As the negotiators pressed on, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed alarm over what he characterized as a ­budding “Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis.”

“This agreement, as it appears, confirms all of our concerns and even more so,” he said at his weekly cabinet meeting.

Later, Netanyahu continued his criticism of a possible deal during a meeting with a delegation of U.S. senators led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“As Israel and the Arab countries see Iran progressing with its aggression to conquer Yemen and the Bab al-Mandeb straits, talks continue as usual and go on, on a deal that from everything that we hear, paves Iran’s way to the bomb,” he said, according to a transcript released by his office.

“Will the fact that Iran will have now, while it’s still having sanctions, doesn’t yet have an easy path to the bomb, it is conquering the Middle East in ways that are unprecedented?” he continued. “Will this make their move forward more moderate or will it make it more extreme? I think it’s a ­no-brainer.”

McConnell said the visitors he was leading “share your concerns about this potential agreement.” He vowed to bring to a vote a bill requiring congressional approval of any deal.

And if the talks collapse without a deal, he said, “ratcheting up sanctions might be the best direction to take.”

(Source: Washington Post)

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