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Thorny Issues Remain for Iran Nuclear Negotiators

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second right, arrives for talks over Iran's nuclear program in Geneva, Nov. 22, 2013.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second right, arrives for talks over Iran's nuclear program in Geneva, Nov. 22, 2013.

The interim deal between world powers and Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions has been hailed by the Obama administration as “an important first step.”

It took two thorny rounds to seal the deal. But analysts say the next steps to ensure that Tehran’s nuclear program will be used exclusively for peaceful purposes may prove more difficult.

The interim agreement freezes for six months Iran’s nuclear program.

“It requires Iran to halt the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and to begin to convert its existing stockpile of 20 percent material," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "It requires that Iran does not make any further advances with respect to the number of centrifuges or the types of centrifuges that are installed at its facilities. It also halts significant activity at the Arak heavy water complex.”

The Arak facility is under construction and could, when completed, produce plutonium, which like highly-enriched uranium, is an important component of a nuclear bomb.

Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is meant only for peaceful purposes, however, such as generating electricity.

Western monitoring

Kimball said the interim agreement also provides for the West to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.

“Very importantly, it gives the International Atomic Energy Agency unprecedented access to key Iranian nuclear sites on a daily basis, which in our estimation effectively prevents any possibility of Iran trying to break out without detection,” he said.

In other words, the new inspections make it virtually impossible for Iran to work on a nuclear weapon without the West’s knowledge.

In exchange for these concessions, Tehran received some relief from crippling economic and financial sanctions.

Joel Rubin, an expert on Iran with the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, said Iran will need more.

“Iran got modest sanctions relief estimated to be $6 billion or $7 billion of funds primarily out of frozen accounts of Iranian revenue from oil sales, as well as a modest amount of petrochemical sales allowed and gold sales allowed,” he said. “But the infrastructure of the sanctions regime currently in place over Iran’s head will remain.”

New talks more challenging

In the coming months, negotiators will try to fashion a comprehensive agreement imposing permanent limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Many analysts say these talks will be far more challenging and difficult.

“The key issue is going to be 'to what extent is Iran willing to reduce its uranium enrichment capacity?'" said Kimball, the arms control expert. "What will it agree to do to shelve some of the other worrisome projects like the Arak heavy water reactor that could theoretically produce plutonium for weapons - and in exchange for what amount of relief from the existing sanctions regime?"

"That is a very tough negotiation," he added.

Analyst Rubin said complex concerns remain. "The primary issues for the international community will be to look at the number of centrifuges, the quality of centrifuges, the locations where Iran is enriching fuel and where its nuclear infrastructure is - to get a handle on that and to discuss the level of centrifuges and infrastructure that they can have,” he said.

He added that “there will be discussions about the inspections regime, adhering to international protocols and ensuring that Iran makes it absolutely clear that its physical nuclear program can only be used for peaceful purposes.”

Iran will be looking for the West to ease more sanctions and eventually eliminate them altogether.

Analysts say it will take a great deal of diplomatic skill and a willingness to compromise to make this next round of talks a success.

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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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