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Middle East Amp North Africa
Uncertain mood as Iran nuclear talks begin
From the Financial Times of Fri, 21 Nov 2014 15:07:21 GMT

As world powers dispatch their foreign ministers for a final round of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme the mood is uncertain, with a sense that progress towards a comprehensive deal has stalled.

But there are still hopes for some kind of broad framework agreement.

On Friday, foreign ministers from the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, began to gather in Vienna where they will attempt to inject some political urgency before the negotiating deadline of midnight on Monday.

Failure to reach a comprehensive agreement will force both sides to seek another extension in the face of restive hardliners in Tehran and a newly Republican-controlled US Senate wary of diplomacy with Iran.

Up until this weekend the two sides have been in apparent deadlock. The P5+1 want no more than 4,000-4,500 centrifuges in operation in Iran to enrich uranium. Tehran wants more than 9,000. The six powers want a phased reversal of sanctions. The Islamic Republic wants key UN-level embargoes dropped immediately.

“We are not discussing an extension. We are negotiating to have an agreement – it’s that simple,” John Kerry, US secretary of state, said in Paris on Thursday, before flying to Vienna.

Just hours into his Austrian visit Mr Kerry announced he was leaving – travelling back to Paris on Friday. “We have not yet determined when he will return to Vienna,” said Jen Psaki, state department spokesperson. It is not yet clear what Mr Kerry’s sudden departure might herald.

But in Moscow on Friday, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, sounded an optimistic note saying: “All the elements to an agreement are already on the table.”

“What we are all focused on now is trying to get the key principles of a deal agreed over the next 72 hours,” Philip Hammond, UK foreign secretary, said, giving further weight to the notion that efforts have now shifted to achieving some kind of framework to announce Monday.

Until now, according to several diplomats familiar with the discussions, optimism has been in short supply since the beginning of the month. At a meeting of P5+1 representatives and Iran in early November in Oman the flexibility and steady progress on technical issues that had characterised the talks in the preceding weeks was said to be absent.

The gulf between negotiating positions has nevertheless shrunk dramatically over the course of the past year. When Iran came into the talks, its demands were to keep almost all of the 19,000 or so first generation centrifuges it has currently installed at sites in Natanz and Fordow.

The P5+1 meanwhile, envisaged a lot less than 2,000 left running. A host of other intractable issues, some of which, such as the future of Iran’s plutonium-producing Arak reactor, are as critical to the talks as the headline uranium enrichment programme, were also far from resolution.

Matters are still very fluid, but the broad positions appear to have significantly changed. Iran now wants to maintain about 9,500 first generation centrifuges in operation, enriching uranium to 5 per cent. It will ship its existing stockpile of fuel to Russia to be turned into fuel rods along with future fuel it produces. Another option it is willing to explore is to reduce the feed level into the centrifuges, curbing their production. Arak, meanwhile, could be converted from its current heavy water configuration. In return, Tehran expects to see key UN-level sanctions against it dropped immediately. And it would like the deal to be agreed for five years.

Meanwhile, the P5+1 say that they can accept no more than 4,000 centrifuges. And sanctions relief, particularly the UN sanctions, cannot be dropped immediately. They expect a deal to have a 10 year horizon.

Some analysts say the centrifuge issue could be resolved. There is a chance the P5+1 could work with 6,000, for example: based on current assessments of Iran’s centrifuge efficiency, 6,000 centrifuges would take about 12 months to produce enough fissile uranium for a bomb. The margin of error, however, is probably simply too small.

And on the subject of sanctions, P5+1 diplomats are adamant they will not budge. Unpicking UN-level sanctions would be quick but putting them back together if Iran reneged on the deal would take too long.

“There are lots of different numbers out there and you have to look across them and judge where the centre of gravity is,” says Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group. “We could get a deal on 6,000 [centrifuges] but the UN sanctions – that’s a tall order. We could have a deal with some really creative diplomacy, but it will be hard.” As for an extension, or a temporary deal, Mr Kupchan says, it could prove as much a curse as a blessing. “An interim framework will be a piñata [for hardliners and hawks] to bash,” he says. “If they go for an extension, I think it might only be for two or three months because of that.”

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