As Negotiators Ease Demands on Iran, More Nuclear Talks Are Set

Two days of talks between six world powers and Iran over its nuclear program ended on Wednesday with specific agreement for further meetings in March and April over a proposal that would sharply constrain Iran’s stockpile of the most dangerous enriched uranium, in return for a modest lifting of some sanctions.

But the six powers dropped their demand that Iran shut down its enrichment plant at Fordo, built deep underneath a mountain, instead insisting that Iran suspend enrichment work there and agree to take a series of steps that would make it hard to resume producing nuclear fuel quickly. The six also agreed, in another apparent softening, that Iran could keep a small amount of 20 percent enriched uranium - which can be converted to bomb grade with modest additional processing - for use in a reactor to produce medical isotopes.

It was unclear whether any of these new positions would pave the way for any kind of agreement. Iran’s negotiators must now take the new proposal back to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, at a time of intense maneuvering and infighting in Iran. The two sides agreed that technical experts would meet to discuss the proposal on March 18 and 19 in Istanbul, while the negotiations at this higher political level would resume, again in Almaty, on April 5 and 6.

The chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called this week’s meeting positive, asserting at a news conference that the six powers, representing the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, had offered a revised proposal that was “more realistic” and “closer to the Iranian position.”

Mr. Jalili, whose comments were notably short of the aggressive wording he has used in the past, called the meeting “a turning point.”

But senior Western diplomats were less enthusiastic, saying that Iran had not in fact responded to the proposal of the six and that real bargaining had not yet begun. A senior American official described the meeting as “useful” - refusing to call it positive - and emphasized that it was “concrete results” that counted, not atmospherics.

A senior European diplomat was even more skeptical, saying that the technical meeting was essentially to explain the proposal to the Iranians once again, and that Iran might very well come back in April with an unacceptable counterproposal that swallows the “carrots” of the six and demands more.

The senior American official said that as a first step toward building confidence and reducing the urgency around the issue, the six were demanding that Iran “significantly restrict” its accumulation of medium-enriched uranium, which could be turned to bomb-grade material in a matter of weeks or months. Iran has a growing stockpile of that fuel, but it has diverted a considerable amount to the Tehran research reactor, which the United States provided to Iran during the shah’s rule to make medical isotopes.

Iran must also suspend enrichment at Fordo and accept conditions that “constrain the ability to quickly resume enrichment there,” the official said, without being specific. In Washington, a senior administration official said those steps included dismantling part of the system that feeds low-enriched fuel into the plant’s centrifuges; it would take weeks or months to rebuild that system, giving the Western allies time to respond.

Third, Iran must allow more regular and thorough access to monitoring from the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that it keeps its promises and cannot suddenly “break out” quickly to create a nuclear warhead, the official said.

In return, the official said, the six would suspend some sanctions. But the relief would not involve oil or financial transactions, which have done the most damage to Iran’s main source of revenue. The group of nations said that if Iran took the deal, they would also promise not to vote for new sanctions through the Security Council or the European Union.

Source: The New York