In technical talks with Iran, the devil is in the details

Third round of negotiations on Iran's nuclear program to resume in Geneva on Monday, with final-status deal not yet on agenda.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at a Geneva news conference 3 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at a Geneva news conference 3
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK – A third round of technical talks will begin on Monday between Iran and world powers, still struggling over how to implement an interim deal they reached last month intended to arrest the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
These quiet conferences are a result of hard negotiations in Geneva conducted during autumn. Their completion is a requirement before even harder discussions begin between Iran and the P5+1 – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – over a comprehensive agreement to the nuclear dispute.
The Geneva interim deal was reached on November 24, but the clock on the six-month deadline to reach a final agreement does not begin ticking until implementation, which cannot happen until the technical talks are done. The deal allows for an extension of the deadline up to a year from implementation, should all parties agree to do so.
But the technical talks have become an important round in their own right. Meant as a stepping stone between the interim deal and a grand bargain, their difficulty has surprised Western negotiators – already sober to the task at hand before them as they enter one of the most difficult negotiations in decades in pursuit of a final nuclear accord.
Before Christmas, after nearly five days of negotiations over details in their second-round attempt, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif commented that progress had come “slowly” – and that he hoped the teams would wrap up technical discussions “sooner or later.”
The details are so complicated that even the leadership of the American negotiating team— including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman – have admitted that the technicalities of implementation run smoothly over their heads.
For this reason, the negotiations are mostly conducted by the parties’ nuclear and sanctions experts.
And for this reason, too, the talks are reported on less than ardently by the press, for whom the technical details prove challenging to master, as well as to cover.
The talks are over what is not in the deal reached in Geneva as much as what is; the Iranians may not continue construction on their heavy-water plutonium reactor in Arak, but they may build roads and construct doors and other utilities in and around Arak that would expedite future construction should talks fail.
They may not enrich uranium above five percent, and must begin eroding their stockpile of uranium that they already enriched to 20 percent. They may not install more centrifuges. But they can research, test and produce centrifuges, and indeed they are doing so with an advanced new model.
“The new generation of centrifuges is under development,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s nuclear program, said on state-run television last week. “All tests should be carried on it before mass production.”