MONTREUX, Switzerland – Diplomats from the United States, Europe and Iran have begun positioning themselves ahead of a critical deadline on historic negotiations over nuclear power, stiffening their rhetoric and returning to their respective capitals to regroup on Sunday.
Congregating in London earlier in the weekend, the foreign ministers of the US, France, United Kingdom, Germany and the EU presented themselves as a united front, despite public disagreement from the French earlier in the week concerning the wisdom of America’s strategic approach in the talks.
After two years of negotiations, France worries that a rush to complete a framework by the end of the month is a “bad tactic” undermining the West’s negotiating leverage, Gerard Araud, France’s envoy to Washington, said over the weekend.
Western powers, alongside Russia and China, seek to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran’s vast nuclear program for a finite period.
Negotiators hope for a political framework agreement by March 31, which will outline a comprehensive joint plan of action completed by June 30.
“We are all equally committed to finding a solution that ensures that Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful,” the powers wrote in a joint statement. “Any solution must be comprehensive, durable and verifiable. None of our countries can subscribe to a deal that does not meet these terms.”
US officials privately have bristled at France’s outspoken criticism of the negotiating process and its demands for more stringent restrictions on the Iranians. Officials have expressed concerns that the French might block a deal at the United Nations, while also noting that the position of the French, within private negotiating rooms, has been far less critical.
Departing Lausanne with plans to return on March 26, US Secretary of State John Kerry recommitted to the March 31 deadline, arguing that the critical choices facing Iran and the West would not get any easier in the weeks and months ahead.
But France’s concerns are not merely strategic, according to its diplomats: Paris wants a deal to last far longer than the decade-long period under discussion, and will not agree to lifting sanctions at the UN Security Council before Iran has delivered on key, “irreversible” aspects of the deal.
Such actions would include the transformation of Iran’s plutonium facility at Arak, the shipment of much of its uranium stockpile out of the country and the introduction of inspectors to all of Iran’s known uranium mines and yellowcake-producing mills.
Western powers argue that a deal is better than not for one reason above all: Visibility. The US seeks access for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to the entire chain of custody on Iran’s enrichment program. US officials say this access is the world’s best chance to detect the siphoning of raw material to covert facilities – of far greater concern to Washington than Iran’s facilities publicly declared.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post whether the US government is confident that it has identified all of Iran’s uranium mines, a US official at the talks said they are not.
The two mines known to the US are at Gachin and Saghand, where a nearby mill, at Ardakan, is near completion and is scheduled to begin production shortly. The point of a deal, the official said, is to keep track of the product of those mines and mills.
An entire chain of custody would have to be covert, from the extraction of ore to its conversion to yellowcake, to its conversion to fuel and ultimately its weaponization, for Iran to circumvent this deal and build a weapon, the official continued. Even then, the US seeks access for the IAEA to additional facilities suspected of aiding in covert processes.
France also wants Tehran to own up to its past research and experimentation on nuclear weapons technology.
Western governments have determined with a high degree of confidence that Iran has conducted such research in its military facilities, including at Parchin, though Iran has denied this and insists that it cannot prove a negative.
Tehran wants all UN-mandated sanctions lifted immediately upon the declaration of an accord, arguing that anything less maintains Iran as a pariah state.
To accommodate this demand, Washington’s experts are seeking to craft a mechanism at the UN Security Council allowing for sanctions to “snap back” in place should Iran violate any aspect of a deal, without a fully new vote in the UN Security Council, where Russia and China wield veto power.
Still, France is concerned that the breadth of concessions offered to Iran may prompt its Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, to seek nuclear technology.
Paris also is concerned with the position of the Israeli government, which, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adamantly opposes the deal in its current form.
In Lausanne, a Chinese diplomat told the Post that the “matters at hand, per se” were under intensive scrutiny inside the Beau Rivage Palace, when asked whether Israel’s concerns with a deal were reflected in his discussions.
The technical nature of the talks, focused not on one particular concern but on a host of interconnected, detail-oriented matters, presents negotiators with a difficult task as they enter the eleventh hour of their effort. As progress is made on one issue, US officials say, challenges appear on others.
“Frankly, they have not yet made the kind of concessions that are I think going to be needed for a final deal to get done,” US President Barack Obama told The Huffington Post in an interview over the weekend.
“But they have moved, and so there’s the possibility.”
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