Key aspects of nuclear talks between Iran and six major powers

July 12, 2015 - 0:0

Iran and major powers have given themselves until Monday to reach a nuclear agreement, their third extension in two weeks, as Tehran accused the West of throwing up new stumbling blocks to a deal.

The Iranians and other delegations say the deal is mostly complete with the exception of a few difficult disputes. Following is a summary of key aspects of the talks:
------- Breakout time

The point of an agreement is to increase Iran’s nuclear “breakout time”, the time needed to produce enough highly enriched uranium or bomb-grade plutonium for a single weapon, to at least a year from the current two to three months.

------- Congressional review

The United States missed a 0400 GMT Friday congressional deadline to submit the text of a final agreement and have a 30-day review during which President Barack Obama will not be permitted to suspend congressional sanctions through executive order.

If a deal is transmitted to Congress by Sept. 7, a period that includes the congressional August recess, U.S. lawmakers will have up to 60 days to review it.

U.S. officials had previously expressed concern that the extended review would provide more time for any deal to unravel but, in the last week, they have said an extension did not matter.

If a deal were sent to Congress after Sept. 7, the review period reverts to 30 days.

------- Sticking points

Sanctions relief - U.S., EU and UN sanctions will be suspended and later terminated, based on verification of Iran’s compliance with the agreement, but there are disputes about timing. Iran wants sanctions lifted as soon as there is an agreement, though Western powers say they will be suspended gradually and terminated much later.

UN nuclear-related sanctions will need to be removed on the basis of a UN Security Council resolution, which will also allow Iran to purchase specific nuclear technology that it has been banned for years from acquiring. There would be a “snapback” plan to restore the sanctions if Iran violates the deal.

The six powers also want the resolution to simultaneously re-impose a UN arms embargo on Iran and ballistic missile sanctions, which they described as not nuclear-related. This has become one of the main sticking points in the final phase of the talks. Iran insists the ban on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles is nuclear-related and should also be lifted. Russia has spoken in favor of Iran’s position.

Duration - If there is a deal, Iranian negotiators agreed in Lausanne that Tehran’s uranium enrichment program will be subject to limitations for a period of 15 years, easing gradually after 10. However, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iran would not limit its nuclear activity for as long as 10 years.

Centrifuges - Machines that purify uranium for use in nuclear power plants or weapons. In Lausanne, Iran agreed to reduce its roughly 19,000 centrifuges installed at two enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow, to 6,104. Under the deal, only 5,060 of these, those at Natanz, will be active for the first 10 years.

All 6,104 centrifuges are to be first generation IR-1s. Iran also agreed to not enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent of fissile material for at least 15 years, well below the 90 percent or more needed for weapons, but appropriate for civilian use.

Iran would be prevented from installing further centrifuges for 15 years.

Research and development - This is one of the more difficult sticking points. According to a French fact sheet, Tehran would be allowed a “gradual and precisely defined increase in (enrichment) capacity between the 10th and 13th years, with the introduction of advanced IR-2 and IR-4 centrifuges”.

Monitoring and verification - One of the biggest sticking points in the talks has been monitoring and verification of the deal’s implementation. The most contention issues has been access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to Iranian military sites and nuclear scientists. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said military sites and scientists are off limits. Iranian and Western officials say so-called “managed access”, or access that is limited to protect legitimate military secrets, such as by blindfolding the inspectors when they are taken to a site, would be possible.

Uranium stockpile - Iran is to reduce its current stockpile of about 8,700 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300 kg of 3.67 percent LEU for 15 years. Iran has been reluctant to ship its LEU abroad, and wants to convert much of it to a less proliferation-risky form. This has been a sticking point.

Arak heavy-water reactor - Iran agreed to redesign and rebuild the Arak heavy-water research reactor based on a design agreed by the six. The idea is that it will not produce bomb-grade plutonium and will focus on peaceful research and medical isotope production.

Possible military dimensions (“PMD”) - According to the Lausanne agreement, Iran must answer queries the IAEA has about past activities that may have been related to atomic weapons research. But Iran has been stonewalling the IAEA probe, and Western officials have said some of the sanctions relief would depend on Iran resolving those queries.

Officials close to the talks say they have made progress on this issue, while the IAEA has said it could issue an assessment of its investigation by the end of the year if Iran cooperates.

---------- Background

The nuclear standoff between Iran and the West goes back to at least 2002. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later confirmed the presence of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy-water production plant at Arak. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful but Western intelligence agencies are convinced Iran had a nuclear arms program that went dormant, possibly as far back as 2003.

In 2003, Britain, France and Germany struck a deal with Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program in exchange for economic and political incentives. That deal, which the United States opposed, collapsed in 2005.

In 2006, the United States dropped its opposition to engagement with Iran and joined the three European powers, along with Russia and China, in what was then called the “P5+1”, the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, or the “E3+3”. In the same year, the Security Council began imposing sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend enrichment and other sensitive nuclear work. This was followed by tougher UN, U.S. and European Union sanctions.
The 5+1 group made several proposals but the process stalled until after President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013. In November of that year, Iran and the six reached an interim deal that gave Tehran limited sanctions relief in exchange for some curbs on its most sensitive nuclear work. It was meant to buy time to negotiate a final, long-term agreement. The interim deal was extended in July and November of last year and three more times over the past two weeks.

On April 2, Iran and the six agreed in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the parameters for a final agreement. They set a deadline for a final, long-term agreement of June 30, though negotiations continued past that deadline. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said he will not be rushed into a deal.

--------- Regional context

Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional foes, oppose the deal. Iran has become increasingly assertive in the region and some analysts believe that, if Iran secures sanctions relief based on a deal with the West, it will boost its confidence as a regional power and improve its flagging economy.

(Source Reuters)