14 july 2014
Possible Modest Cut in Enrichment for Duration of Nuclear Accord
VIENNA—Iran has signaled for the first time that it is willing to accept a modest reduction in nuclear enrichment throughout the duration of a comprehensive nuclear agreement, according to people involved in the talks.
Although Iran’s suggestion isn’t yet Tehran’s only proposal on the table, and it is very unlikely to be accepted in current form by the West, it is the first time Iran has shown some flexibility on future enrichment rights-—a key obstacle to a deal.
Iran’s suggestion is based on freezing the number of centrifuges it operates at its current level of 9,400. It will slightly reduce the fuel it produces from these old-generation machines by spinning them more slowly during the multiyear period of the agreement, according to an Iranian and a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to one of the diplomats, Iran first aired the proposal to European diplomats several weeks ago.
The Iranian proposal wouldn’t amount to the significant reduction in the enrichment program that has been demanded by the U.S. and it would be easy for Tehran to quickly reverse the concession by increasing the centrifuges’ output again.
However at a time when Iranian officials, including the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been demanding the West let Tehran significantly ratchet up its current program, the offer appears to represent an important shift from Tehran.
The signs of Iran showing some flexibility come with just six days to go before the July 20 deadline for completing a deal and such a move could help extend the talks. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is currently in Vienna negotiating with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, warned Washington would only allow the talks to continue past the deadline if there was real progress.
Mr. Kerry met with Mr. Zarif for around two hours starting late Monday morning after the two held discussions in Vienna Sunday evening. Diplomats said the two foreign ministers could continue the discussions later Monday.
On Monday morning, a senior State Department official said that Mr. Kerry will stay in Vienna to “take the time necessary…to see if progress can be made.”
Iran negotiates with the U.S., the U.K., China, Russia, France and Germany on its nuclear program, which it says is for purely peaceful purposes.
A comprehensive agreement would see the West gradually lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for firm guarantees that Tehran could not quickly break out and produce enough nuclear fuel for an atomic bomb.
U.S. officials have made it clear that after the multiyear agreement expires, Iran will be free to operate a larger-scale enrichment program for peaceful purposes. While the Iranian offer could pave the way to start to close the gap on enrichment, the two sides still have major differences over how long an agreement would last.
The U.S. is pushing for a deal lasting as much as 20 years, some diplomats say whereas Iran thinks an agreement —and therefore limits on its program —should only last a few years.
On Sunday, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was still a “huge” gap between Iran and the six powers on the enrichment issue.
And Western diplomats say Iran is still at times talking about revving up its nuclear program in some of the talks.
At present, Iran has around 19,000 centrifuges, all but 1,000 of which are old-generation machines, with relatively low enrichment capacity. However only around 9,400 machines at Tehran’s Natanz nuclear facility are operating and producing nuclear fuel.
Under the Iranian proposal, none of the centrifuges at Natanz would be removed from the site, including the more advanced machines and the thousands of old-generation centrifuges that are currently not operating.