WASHINGTON – Two months before negotiations over its nuclear program are set to expire, Iran’s positions are still far from acceptable to the US, a senior Obama administration official said on Tuesday night.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said the two governments remain “far apart” in the talks, now in their eighth month and steaming ahead toward a November 24 deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, along with the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany.
“I fully expect in the days ahead that Iran will try to convince the world that on this pivotal matter, the status quo – or its equivalent – should be acceptable. It is not,” Sherman said, referring to Iran’s attempts to retain a vast uranium enrichment infrastructure, its primary path to nuclearization. “If it were, we wouldn’t be involved in this difficult and very painstaking negotiation.”
World powers are set to resume talks on Thursday in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly that began this week. Sherman will attend with her counterparts, though the parties expect the talks may elevate to the ministerial level.
Accepting an award from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Sherman, who leads negotiations for the US, said the primary disagreement is over “the size and scope” of Iran’s uranium enrichment.
The country has stockpiled roughly 20,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, and operates thousands of them, including advanced models that enrich the material to high, weapons- level grades with greater efficiency. The US has indicated it might accept Iran’s retention of 2,000-4,000 centrifuges, with enrichment capped at 3.5 percent under strict enforcement.
Depending on the efficiency of the centrifuges, uranium can be quickly enriched from between 5% and 20% to weapons-grade material – the most laborious stage is in the initial processing.
Iran has resisted caps on its research into centrifuge designs and, in July, called for an increase in its centrifuge stockpiling to 190,000.
Iranian nuclear weapons would provide its leaders with “devastating power far beyond its borders, threatening Israel,” Sherman said, and possibly lead to a “catastrophic” nuclear arms race in the world’s most dangerous region.
President Barack Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon during his time in office.
Throughout a long negotiation, world crises – “crises du jour,” as diplomats on Iran would call them – have repeatedly challenged the talks. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, the fall of Mosul in Iraq in June, Israel’s war in Gaza in July and the US declaration of open war against Islamic State in September all hit pressure points among members at the table.
But the US president has repeatedly referred to the Iranian nuclear crisis as America’s greatest security challenge.
Since relations have frayed over the fate of Ukraine, Russia has undermined sanctions against Iran originally signed on to by Moscow itself.
Russia, too, is now sanctioned by a similar Western alliance.
And neither Russia, nor Iran, are prepared to work with the US on its pending air campaign against Islamic State in Syria. Both have warned Washington that such an attack would amount to an act of aggression against a sovereign state.
“Over the past three years, the Syrian government’s repression has triggered one of the gravest humanitarian catastrophes in human modern history, with more than 190,000 people killed, three million refugees, and six million internally displaced people,” Sherman said in her speech on Tuesday, which widely addressed US foreign policy in the Middle East.
“ISIL [Islamic State]’s ability to attract fighters surged [it] in direct proportion to the Assad regime’s brutality.”
Sherman also touched on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Israel has the right to pursue a “permanent end” to rocket fire from neighboring Gaza, she said, but must do so in accordance with “international law.”
The State Department harshly criticized Israel toward the end of its campaign against Hamas in Gaza last month, warning that continued IDF shelling nearby United Nations facilities was “not justified” by the suspected proximity of terrorist activity.
Zero-sum thinking is a dominant theme in the Middle East, she argued, speaking generally of the region’s woes.
“America’s policy in the Middle East begins with our understanding that the problems now plaguing the region have tangled roots.”