News / Middle East

    Key Technical Issues Remain in Iran Talks

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second left, meets with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, center, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, third right, at the Iran Nuclear talks in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 9, 201
    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, second left, meets with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, center, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, third right, at the Iran Nuclear talks in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 9, 201
    As Iranian and Western negotiators move closer to a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capability, key continuing issues need to be resolved.

    It seemed in early November that an agreement was at hand after top Western diplomats, including U.S. Secretary John Kerry, flew to Geneva to meet Iranian officials.

    Negotiations are now set to resume on November 20 in Geneva. Western and Iranian officials have given indications a framework is within reach to limit Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon.

    The international community has been trying for years to persuade Iran to end its uranium enrichment program - but with little success. Low enriched uranium can be used for civilian nuclear power plants but highly-enriched uranium is an integral part of a nuclear bomb.

    Uranium enrichment key

    Jim Walsh, Iran expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the core of the deal is the uranium enrichment issue.

    “No one wants Iran to have a big pile of 20 percent enriched uranium sitting around that might later quickly be converted and further enriched to bomb-grade uranium,”  Walsh said. “So if Iran is not producing anymore 20 per cent enrichment and if it disposes of the 20 percent it has already produced - that is a big non-proliferation win.”

    Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, said 20 percent enrichment gives Iran more than normal reactor fuel grades but not quite weapons grade.

    “Western nations also want to stop the introduction of additional centrifuges into the two main enrichment facilities - Natanz and Fordow," he said. "They also would like to dispose of or ship out of the country the existing 20 percent enriched material as well as perhaps some of the low enriched uranium that the Iranians have accumulated.”

    Plutonium production caution

    Joel Rubin, expert on Iran with the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation specializing in nuclear weapons policy, said another Western demand is for Iran to stop construction of the Arak plutonium production facility. Plutonium is a key component of a nuclear weapon.

    “A plutonium facility is above ground, unlike these uranium enrichment facilities. So it’s more easily monitored and would require a reprocessing facility that has not yet been constructed,” Rubin said.

    “And it’s estimated that it won’t be completed - this one - until sometime in 2014 at the earliest and then the reprocessing would take more time after that," he said. "But that is a concern - the question is why does Iran need a plutonium facility?”

    Sanctions relief wanted

    For its part, Iran is looking for substantial relief from the crippling international sanctions that have hurt the country’s economy and financial sector, driving up unemployment and inflation.

    Daryll Kimball with the Arms Control Association said Western nations - known as the P5+1 - are willing to ease some sanctions as long as Iran does its part.

    “The P5+1 are believed to be offering relief on sanctions involving trade in aircraft parts, automobile parts, trade in gold and precious metals," he said. "And the P5+1 may also be contemplating the release of frozen Iranian assets in banks around the world, assets from oil trading over the past several years.”

    “This totals tens of billions of dollars and the P5+1 could gradually release some of those funds as Iran takes concrete steps to limit their programs,” Kimball said.


    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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