TEHRAN – In an article published on the website of the International Institute for Strategic Studies on April 24, Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, says most analysts believe that the issue of the Arak heavy water reactor is not off the table in negotiations between Iran and the major powers over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The fate of the heavy water plant, which has not yet been completed, is one of the central issues in nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) aimed at reaching a final deal on Tehran’s nuclear program by an agreed July 20 deadline.
Some Western countries claim that the reactor could yield weapons-usable material. Iran denies any such aim.
Following are excerpts of the article:
As the six-month interim Iran nuclear deal hit the halfway mark this week, the tone of most public commentary turned positive about the chances for striking a comprehensive deal. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had kept its promises under the 24 November Joint Plan of Action. Indeed, Iran has finished diluting half of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium hexafluoride to 5%, and conversion of the rest of it to oxide for use in fuel pellets is well underway. The United States has released $2.55 billion in previously frozen Iranian assets, and the Central Bank of Iran has apparently found a way to overcome the difficulties reported earlier this month with it actually being able to access the revenues.
David Petraeus, formerly CIA director and commander of U.S. Central Command, said the prospect for a final deal ‘is now maybe better than 50/50’. On the assumption that a final deal will be reached, RAND put out a study this week looking at the steps that will have to follow an agreement. One commentator attributed the positive vibes to Iran responding well to flexibility, not pressure.
In Vienna last week, sources close to the talks told me one reason for optimism is that the parties are examining in detail various alternatives for meeting their respective goals. This pragmatic approach was most evident in Iran’s offer to redesign the Arak research reactor so that it would produce one-fifth of the plutonium that it was originally designed to. The new design would use low-enriched uranium as fuel, rather than natural uranium, and would lower the power of the reactor. Frank von Hippel and his fellow physicists at Princeton recommended such an approach earlier this month. Because the power-output change can be reversed, it is not an ideal solution. Western countries may therefore still be holding out for the conversion of Arak to a light-water reactor. But most commentators seem inclined to go along with Iran’s claim that the Arak issue is now off the table.
Another reason for optimism is that Iran’s simultaneous talks with the IAEA on transparency measures have also been proceeding pragmatically, addressing questions about possible weapon detonators. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in early June characterized Iran’s responses as ‘cooperative’. Ali Akbar Salehi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said last Saturday that Iran has no problem allowing the IAEA to visit the Parchin military facility, where nuclear-related-explosive experiments are alleged to have taken place.
Arak and transparency have always been the easier issues, however. In the remaining three months before the 20 July deadline, the negotiators must tackle the harder problems of how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate, how long the restrictions will apply for and what to do about the excess centrifuges and the Fordow enrichment plant. Iran wants to keep all 20,000 of the centrifuges now installed, and hold to that number for only a few years before outfitting Natanz with the 50,000 centrifuges for which it was designed. The West wants the number cut to only a few thousand, and for the restrictions to last for 20 years.
There is also the issue of Iran’s large stockpile of low-enriched uranium. In the 24 November deal, Iran agreed that, by the end of the six months, any newly enriched product would be converted to oxide. But the facility for this conversion is not yet completed and may not be operational by 20 July. Not meeting the deadline for low-enriched-uranium conversion is not strategically important. But failing to meet this part of the deal would have political repercussions, giving ammunition to skeptics who already think that the deal was overly generous to Iran and that more sanctions must be applied to keep up the pressure.
The Iranian negotiating team must also deal with its own naysayers, many of whom are embedded throughout the government.
I hate to spoil the mood of optimism, but I still don’t see much prospect for the parties reaching a politically acceptable solution in the foreseeable future.
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