News / Middle East

Iran Nuclear Negotiators Under Pressure After Leader's Speech

FILE - Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
FILE - Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

A major speech by Iran's Supreme Leader has limited the ability of the Iranian delegation at high-level nuclear talks to make concessions with six world powers and this could scuttle chances for Tehran to reach an accord to end sanctions, diplomats said.

In a public address filled with technical detail, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week Iran needs to significantly increase its uranium enrichment capacity, clashing with the powers' push for it to be reduced to minimize the risk of nuclear bombmaking, as July 20 deadline for a deal nears.

The talks with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are aimed at a long-term accord on Iran curbing its nuclear energy program in exchange for a gradual end of sanctions that have crippled the OPEC member's economy.

In his speech, which analysts compared in importance to a State of the Union address by a U.S. president, Khamenei said he had faith in his negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araqchi.

Several diplomats close to the talks said the speech, which included many details about the nuclear program and Iranian demands on it, came as a surprise to the Iranian delegation.

One Western diplomat said the delegation appeared “taken aback” by Khamenei's remarks at such a sensitive time in the nuclear negotiations - just ahead of the July 20 deadline for a deal. Two Iranian sources confirmed that assessment.

“In ostensibly expressing support for the Iranian negotiating team, close scrutiny of Khamenei's speech shows that in reality his remarks were aimed at severely curtailing his team's room for maneuver, making it effectively impossible to bridge gaps with the stance of the (six powers),” according to a Western intelligence analysis of the speech seen by Reuters.

Khamenei's message was a reminder of the tensions within Iran's complex power elite between conservative hardliners - like him - wary of any detente with the West they fear would imperil the Islamic Revolution - and moderates who see a nuclear deal as Iran's ticket out of economically crippling isolation.

Pragmatist Hassan Rouhani's landslide 2013 election as Iranian president on a platform of improving Iran's foreign relations to revive the economy opened the door to nuclear diplomacy and a possible improvement of ties with the West. Resolving the decade-long nuclear standoff with Iran is seen as vital to allaying fears of a new war in the Middle East.

Iran and the six resumed talks in Vienna on July 2 and their negotiators continued meetings in the Austrian capital on Monday, though there was no immediate sign of any substantive progress. Western and Iranian officials have complained publicly that the sides remain far apart on all key issues in the talks.

Iran's capacity to refine uranium lies at the center of the nuclear stalemate and is seen as the hardest issue to resolve in the Vienna talks, which began in February. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Vienna to help break the deadlock. He met Zarif for a second day in a row on Monday.

The Islamic Republic denies Western allegations that its declared program to enrich fuel for civilian nuclear energy is a front for pursuing the capability to produce atomic weapons.

Dispute over centrifuges

A relative of Khamenei's explained to Reuters the motivation for the speech. “The leader is above all the factions. He felt that it was essential to state his red lines publicly to avoid any misunderstanding by either side involved in the talks.

“His speech contained clear technical points,” the relative added. “Now everyone, whether Iranian or non-Iranian, clearly understands what is negotiable and what is not.”

Unusually, Khamenei's July 7 speech included details on what he described as Iran's enrichment “needs”, defending it against what he indicated was the West's dismissive attitude towards the Islamic Republic. Western officials say that enrichment on home soil is not a “need” for Iran and that it can obtain cheaper and better fuel for civilian reactors from Russia and elsewhere.

Khamenei suggested that Iran needed 190,000 centrifuge machines in the long term - a 19-fold increase in its current operational capacity to refine uranium.

U.S. and European negotiators want Iran to have a figure in the low thousands to ensure it cannot quickly amass enough for atomic bomb fuel, should it someday choose to do so.

Some analysts have suggested that Khamenei's speech actually indicated a level of flexibility because he was talking about long-term Iranian plans. Others disagree.

“[Khamenei's] statement served both as a directive upon his negotiating team and as an apparent effort to shift the framework of the debate away from Western demands, essentially grounding the talks,” the intelligence analysis said.

Earlier this month, Iranian and Western officials close to the talks said Iran was reducing its demands for centrifuges well below the figure Khamenei used. But in the wake of Khamenei's speech, diplomats said, far-reaching compromises by the Iranians will be more difficult.

“In our assessment, Khamenei's remarks were not coordinated with the Iranian negotiating team in Vienna at present, and were intended to cut off their ability to negotiate effectively,” the intelligence analysis said.

“Furthermore, they were aimed at sending a clear message to the international community that the negotiating team does not have the mandate to compromise on the most critical issues under discussion - above all, Iran's uranium enrichment capacity.”

Iran expert Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group said of Khamenei's speech that “drawing public red lines won't help the negotiators to narrow the gaps” in positions.

Western and Iranian diplomats said that after Khamenei's speech it would be more difficult for Zarif and Araqchi to sell concessions back in Tehran on centrifuges and other issues, such as Western demands that Iran shut the Fordow enrichment site. Khamenei said that demand was “laughable.”

President Rouhani's brother Hossein Fereydoun arrived in Vienna to join the talks and send details of the negotiations back to the president, Iran's state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday. It was not immediately clear if that was linked to concerns on Rouhani's part in the wake of Khamenei's speech.

While Rouhani and Zarif may sincerely want to reach a deal that would dismantle the sanctions that have devastated Iran's economy, diplomats and analysts say that Khamenei is wary of reaching a swift accord with the West, above all with the United States - the “Great Satan” and Iran's arch-enemy since 1979.

“Obviously Khamenei does not want to share his power and authority with Rouhani or anyone else,” said a diplomat in Tehran. “For him an extension is an ideal situation. If he feels that his power might be challenged by a nuclear deal, Khamenei will ignore its economic benefits by rejecting it.”

The talks on a long-term nuclear deal can theoretically be prolonged for up to six months if all sides agree. Some analysts and diplomats say an extension might be necessary but U.S. officials say there needs to be further progress on key issues in the coming days if an extension is to be approved.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs