WASHINGTON -- The Islamic Republic will not negotiate away "any facilities" in its nuclear program as part of a comprehensive deal, Iranian officials told their Western counterparts on Tuesday in Vienna, opening the first day of historic talks over their controversial program with the issuance of a solid redline.
That precondition, outlined at the very start of negotiations, only underlined the difficulty of the diplomatic task set before Western officials now embarking on one of the most difficult multinational negotiations in decades.
Iranian officials said they would not cede their “right” to maintain those facilities, nor would they give up the machinery within them: the centrifuges spinning uranium at an efficiency deeply worrisome to Western governments.
The comments made no exception of Iran’s facility at Fordo – a nuclear plant burrowed inside a mountain outside the city of Qom. It was previously hidden from the world community until American, British and French intelligence agencies unveiled it in 2009.
The closure of Fordo is a high priority for the Obama administration in the talks, as is the matter of Iranian state-sponsored research and development regarding advanced nuclear technologies.
Already this week, US diplomats are warning that the talks may not produce a final deal ending the longstanding nuclear crisis.
Speaking to journalists hours before the talks began, a senior US administration official said that the American delegation did not “have to worry about high expectations.”
“We don’t know if, at the end of these six months, we will be able to achieve a comprehensive agreement, though we aim to,” the official said on Tuesday. “It’s probably as likely that we won’t get an agreement as it is that we will.”
Expectations are low among all the diplomatic corps – but all parties agree on the high stakes of the talks.
“For the sake of our national security and the peace and security of the world, now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” President Barack Obama has said of the negotiations.
Top US and Iranian officials engaged in private consultations for over an hour on the sidelines of the conference, where six world powers – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – are attempting to forge a deal with Iran that will allay their concerns over its extensive nuclear work.
Israel and its allies in the West question Iran’s need for 20,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at near-weapons grades – and the function of a heavy-water plutonium reactor with no known civilian nuclear purpose.
“Nuclear weapons are neither a security provider nor a source of consolidation of political power,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on social media outlets Tuesday as talks began.
Just a day before, Khamenei expressed skepticism about the negotiations, now at a critical juncture with a hard and fast deadline.
“I am not optimistic about the talks, and [they] will not lead anywhere,” Khamenei told a crowd in Persian Azerbaijan, northwest of the capital, adding that he was “not opposed” to the effort.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman leads the American delegation in Vienna once again after conducting bilateral talks with Iran through the autumn of 2013. Those talks led to an interim deal between world powers and Iran, with the latter freezing much of its nuclear program in exchange for $7 billion in sanctions relief from the global community. The deal began in January and is to continue for six months while the parties attempt to negotiate a final settlement.
“We’re at the very beginning of the process,” another senior US official said after Sherman’s bilateral meeting with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi on Tuesday.
In Israel, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz warned that the fate of global order, security, a regional arms race and an existential threat to both Israel and the US all rested on the results of the Vienna talks.
Steinitz said he had been in dialogue with the six world powers, especially the US, about the talks. He added that Sherman was due in Israel next week.
“We give diplomacy a chance, and we hope the talks succeed,” he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is meeting this week in Jerusalem.
“If the deal is a bad deal, it will have enormous consequences,” he said.
Iran could produce nuclear energy in power stations and buy nuclear fuel rods, he said, adding that he was particularly concerned that language of “practical needs,” which had been in the interim agreement, would be included in the final one.
“What is written is that some enrichment capacity will be discussed in the primary agreement for practical needs,” he said. The six powers might have thought this was a limiting term for civilian usage, he stated, but it’s not.
“Civilian practical needs can justify more centrifuges than military needs,” he said.
As long as Iran has a centrifuge facility, it remains a “threshold nuclear country,” he said, declaring that “at the end of talks, Iran cannot remain a threshold nuclear state. It cannot have plutonium reactors or centrifuges, uranium enrichment facilities.”
The ability to produce enriched uranium is one of the most critical elements of producing a nuclear weapon, he continued. He said that was particularly true given Iran’s level of knowledge about arms production and its possession of long-range missiles.
Even if Iran has 4,000 centrifuges, it could have a bomb within six moths, he said, and if Iran remains a threshold nuclear state, “sooner or later Iran will get the bomb.”
He warned that it would be like North Korea, which signed a deal with the West and then produced a nuclear bomb.
Steinitz asserted that this would constitute an existential threat to Israel, the Middle East and the US. He said that in a few years, Iran could have long-range missiles that could reach the US with nuclear warheads.
But even if they wait, he went on, the knowledge that they are a threshold state would provoke a regional arms race between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
“If Iran can enrich uranium, why not Egypt, Algeria or Turkey?” he asked. “The US will have no answer.” And it will not stop there, he warned.
“The end result is that many countries might demand the privilege to become threshold nuclear states.”