News / Middle East

Centrifuges Key Sticking Point in Iran Nuclear Talks

Video cameras set for start of news conference, Vienna International Center, May 14, 2014.
Video cameras set for start of news conference, Vienna International Center, May 14, 2014.
Reuters
The biggest hurdle Iran and world powers must overcome to clinch a lasting deal on Tehran's nuclear program by a July deadline is agreeing on the future scope of uranium enrichment in the Islamic Republic, officials and diplomats said on Thursday.

An Iranian official said it will be “very difficult though not impossible” to bridge the divide. Western officials said Iran and the six powers must agree not only on the number and type of centrifuge machines Iran will operate but also the level of enrichment and size of uranium stocks Tehran can accumulate.

As a result, diplomats said that enrichment has emerged as the principal sticking point in negotiations on what U.S. officials say must be a comprehensive agreement covering every issue under discussion if it is to be acceptable to Washington.

Iran has defied a U.N. Security Council ban on uranium enrichment and other sensitive nuclear activities, resulting in crippling U.S., U.N. and European Union sanctions. It denies allegations from Western powers and their allies that it is covertly seeking the capability to produce atomic weapons.

Some issues have been satisfactorily resolved, though U.S. officials caution that an agreement will not be possible until every detail is resolved. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” a senior U.S. official told reporters this week.

One of the thorniest issues in the talks has been the future of Iran's planned Arak heavy-water reactor, which Western powers fear could yield significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. But a senior Iranian official said that issue was essentially settled, an assertion several Western officials supported.

Iran, which says the Arak reactor is for peaceful medical purposes, has ruled out converting it to a light-water reactor, a model less amenable to producing bomb material.

The idea, the Iranian official suggested, is that Tehran would leave it as a heavy-water plant but run it at a low enough output to ensure any plutonium yields are minimal.

“There are ways to reach an agreement over the Arak plant to allay concerns,” he told Reuters. “Arak is not a problem anymore.” A Western diplomat agreed: “Arak is not a problem.”

But there is a much more formidable obstacle to clear.

Despite the smiles and handshakes at photo opportunities, there have been fierce exchanges behind closed doors at Vienna's Coburg palace touching on the yawning divide over enrichment capacity, diplomats and senior Iranian officials said.

The gap can be measured in tens of thousands of centrifuges, the slender cylindrical machines that spin in linked clusters at supersonic speed to concentrate uranium's fissile element.

“We need at least 100,000 IR-1 [first generation] centrifuges to produce enough fuel for each of our [civilian] nuclear [power] plants. We have informed the International Atomic Energy Agency about our plans to build 20 plants,” a senior Iranian official said on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials, however, have made clear for months that the number of centrifuges they are willing to tolerate operating in Iran over the medium term is in the low thousands to ensure that Tehran's ability to produce a usable amount of bomb-grade uranium, should it go down that road, is severely limited.

Iran, which has demonstrated a readiness to curb higher-level enrichment, says such draconian limitations would be a violation of its right to enrich — an issue Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said is a “red line” for Tehran.

July 20 deadline

A broad accord, which has eluded Tehran and Western powers for over a decade, is meant to end years of antagonism and avert the risk of a wider Middle East war with global repercussions.

Iran and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States have set a July 20 deadline for a permanent accord that could bring a gradual end of sanctions hamstringing Iran's oil-dependent economy. That deadline was part of an interim November 2013 deal under which Iran froze some parts of its atomic program in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

The sides began their fourth round of Vienna talks on Wednesday. U.S. and Iranian officials say they are already working on drafting a final accord that would curb Iran's enrichment program and to reduce the risk that it could lead to the making of atomic bombs. The talks are to end on Friday.

In exchange, Iran wants an end to biting international sanctions that have forced a sharp reduction in crude oil exports vital to the economic well-being of the Islamic Republic.

Robert Einhorn, a former top U.S. State Department official once involved in talks with Iran and now at the Brookings Institution, dismissed remarks from the head of Tehran's atomic energy organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, that the Natanz enrichment plant alone would need 50,000 advanced centrifuges.

“An enrichment capacity that large, indeed, an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges, would give Iran an unacceptably rapid [bomb] breakout capability,” he wrote on his think-tank's website.

“If Tehran's position at the negotiating table is a reflection of Salehi's public remarks, it is a show-stopper, and Iran must know that,” Einhorn said.

Despite the huge gap in negotiating positions, several officials from the six-power group said they believed a deal was the most likely outcome of the talks, given the intense pressure on the Iranians and Americans to get one.

Consensus elusive, crucial

At the same time, securing consensus was not a certainty, since the Iranians will find themselves forced to make decisions on limiting their enrichment that may be very difficult to sell to powerful conservatives in Tehran.

“This will be hard, very technical work,” a Western official said about the process of drafting the details of Iran's permissible enrichment program.

The Iranian official said Tehran felt the six powers would eventually yield on the enrichment issue. But Western officials said Iran would have to climb down from unreasonable demands.

“We will find a face-saving solution that will allow both sides to say they got their way,” the Iranian official said.

While any deal, at its core, will be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the United States, officials said it was crucial all members of the six power group fully accept it.

“We saw what happened in Geneva when one country broke ranks,” a Western official said, referring to France's last-minute objections that helped foil a preliminary pact with Iran in the second round of Geneva talks in early November. Several weeks later an interim deal was signed.

Securing acceptance of any deal struck in Vienna by security hawks in Tehran on the one hand and in Washington on the other will also be a challenge, Western officials say.

Israel has talked of bombing arch-foe Iran if diplomacy does not effectively shut down its nuclear activity. It is dead-set against Iran retaining even limited enrichment under any deal.

The Americans are consulting with Israel, their closest ally in the Middle East and a country that is widely assumed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the region. Western officials say the Israelis are slowly realizing they may have to accept something other than a “zero enrichment” scenario for Iran.

The 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty guarantees the right of all countries to having nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran frequently cites this, and says enrichment is a foundation of its national sovereignty and modernization.

You May Like

Yemen Brings US, Iran Closer to Naval Face-off

US sending two more ships to waters off coast of Yemen to take part in 'maritime security operations' More

Minorities Become Majority Across US

From 2000 to 2013, minorities became the majority in 78 counties in the United States. Here's where those demographic shifts are happening More

Japan's Maglev Train Breaks Own Speed Record

Seven-car 'magnetic levitation' train traveled at more than 600 kilometers per hour during test run Tuesday More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Anthony Bellchambers from: London
May 16, 2014 7:04 AM
The solution to this impasse is very clear. Israel MUST subject its massive, undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal to inspection by the UN's IAEA and it MUST sign and ratify the NPT, the CWC and the BWC. Anything less perpetuates and accentuates the very real danger of a nuclear war in the Middle East that would very quickly spread to Europe. Stock markets would collapse and the EU would disintegrate. And all because the US Congress is under the influence of a foreign power.

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
May 15, 2014 2:38 PM
Iran has every motivation to be stubborn in these negotiations since the US is only pretentiously having all options on the table. When the US goofed on Syria, little did it understand what its implication was going to be diplomatically. Now Iran knows how war-weary and weak the US is under the Obama administration and so can dare her to do anything, sure that nothing is going to happen. Too bad! Israel appears to be the one left in the lurch here, as Saudi Arabia is beginning to mend fence with Iran, maybe out of the fear and intimidation by Iran's growing influence, even as USA began to court the same Iran when Rouhani attended the UN general assembly last year. So why not, Iran see itself now on the driving seat, after all almost the whole world is on their knees now because of one thing - nuclear powered Iran.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs