News / Middle East

Iran Nuke Talks: What's at Stake

FILE - A general view of the Arak nuclear power plant, 190 km southwest of Tehran Jan. 15, 2011.
FILE - A general view of the Arak nuclear power plant, 190 km southwest of Tehran Jan. 15, 2011.
Margaret Besheer
The U.S. State Department confirmed this week that talks between six world powers and Iran to find a permanent deal on Tehran’s nuclear program will begin in New York in mid-February.  

In November, the United States and five other powers sealed a short-term deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program, in exchange for limited relief from economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.  The deal, signed in Geneva, went into effect January 20.

The six-month agreement provides for the incremental release of $4.2 billion in frozen oil money and another $2 billion from the loosening of trade restrictions.  That is just a fraction of the $120 billion the U.S. Treasury Department estimates American- and European Union-imposed sanctions have cost Iran in lost revenue since 2010.

Now, the five permanent Security Council members - known as the P5 - plus Germany, will meet at the political director level with Iran to seek a long-term comprehensive deal.

Michael Elleman, senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says there are many difficult issues to be resolved, and the negotiation process may stretch beyond six months.  High on the agenda, he says, will be the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to keep.

“Some have projected maybe a thousand centrifuges running, as opposed to around the 9,000 that they presently have operating.  The reason for that is that they want to minimize Iran’s ability to dash to a bomb. So that’s one issue. The compromise will probably mean that they will be able to retain somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 centrifuges, all of the first generation type," said Elleman.

Another sticking point, says Alex Vatanka of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, is the level to which Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium - a key component in nuclear weapons.

Under the interim deal, Tehran has agreed not to enrich beyond 5 percent, which Vatanka says would keep it away from weapons-grade uranium.

“We have to wait to see how America pursues the idea of Iran having any enrichment on its soil.  Because the Iranians have made it very clear, they are adamant, there will be no stopping of the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil, they will continue with that," said Vatanka.

The U.S. has said that neither the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory, nor the Geneva deal, represents recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

Analysts say there will also be negotiations around the future of the heavy water reactor at Arak and a second uranium enrichment plant at Fordo, near Qom.
But it is not just about the U.S. and Iran.  The other members of the P5 - Russia, China, Britain and France - plus Germany - also will be part of the negotiations.
Michael Elleman says that while Russia and China may not have the difficult relationship that the West has with Iran, they still do not want to see Tehran emerge as a nuclear player.

“What China and Russia want is stability.  So if a nuclear Iran means an unstable region, then they have a problem with a nuclear Iran.  I don’t think they really worry about Iran extorting them with nuclear weapons, they worry about Iran disrupting the flow of energy from the region," he said.

On the sanctions front, George Washington University professor Edmund Ghareeb says Iran wants sanctions lifted so it can build its economy.

“They want to improve the standard of living of their people, they want to play a major economic role in the region, they want to play a political role in the region, they want recognition of their regional role by the other players, by the outside world as well," said Ghareeb.

MEI’s Vatanka says that while the issues are many, the diplomatic climate for negotiations is good because the key players in Washington and Tehran appear serious about making a deal.

“What is important is to keep our eyes on the key player when we’re looking at the Iranian regime - the key player is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.  And he has made it abundantly clear that he wants a deal.  On the United States side we have President Obama in the White House who has made it abundantly clear that he wants a deal," he said.

Professor Ghareeb says if President Barack Obama can achieve a breakthrough on this issue it would be a very important part of his legacy.

“This is something that’s been going on for quite a long time, and it looked like it’s impossible.  Some people believed that the only way is to use force, for example.  But if the administration is able to reach an agreement, I think this would be considered a major achievement," he said.

While the talks will be held in New York, the United Nations will not be a party to them.  The choice of venue could give Iranian officials an opportunity to meet with the Iranian diaspora, international businessmen and others.  It also avoids a setting, such as Washington, which would be more politically symbolic.

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