Behind schedule, no words on paper for Iran nuclear deal

Failure to agree on any language suggests the self-imposed July 20 deadline might now be infeasible.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (centre L) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (centre R) in Vienna April 9, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (centre L) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (centre R) in Vienna April 9, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- A July 20 deadline may already be out of reach for world powers to seal an agreement ending international concerns over Iran's nuclear program, after talks ended last week without any draft language agreed upon, sources tell The Jerusalem Post.
The United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran gathered in Vienna last week expecting to begin the writing process. But failure to agree on any language suggests the self-imposed deadline might now be infeasible.
“The goal wasn’t to agree on draft language per se,” a State Department official told the Post. “It was to begin the drafting process.”
“As we know, this is the hardest part and will take time,” the official added.
At the beginning of negotiations in January, members of the US delegation acknowledged that the legal process of drafting, independent of the diplomacy required to reach agreement on core issues, could take months to complete.
The parties are attempting to forge a comprehensive agreement to a decades-long impasse with Iran over its nuclear work. Western governments, their allies and the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog detect possible military elements to the program.
One of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiators acknowledged the development. “We have not reached the point to start drafting the final agreement,” Abbas Araghchi said, after the fourth round of talks in Austria ended on a blue note on Friday.
An interim nuclear agreement reached last year in Geneva grants negotiators the ability to extend the talks up to six months from July 20.
Over the weekend, Iranian officials suggested missing the July deadline would not be a “tragedy;” but US officials fear an extension would politically complicate the talks.
Negotiations are scheduled to resume on June 16 in Vienna.
Speaking to journalists after the latest round, one senior US official brushed off drafting concerns.
“I’m not going to get into sort of details about what’s on paper and what’s not,” the US official said. “As I said, we’ve started the negotiating drafting process, which is a process that will take some time.”
Well-publicized, monthly meetings in Vienna are simply the face of the diplomatic effort: work continues below the political directors of the negotiations on a constant basis, and much of the agreement – more than half, some officials suggest – is already complete.
But similar to the process of enriching uranium, where 90 percent of the work is completing 20 percent of the enrichment, the hardest part of the negotiations will be reaching a compromise on a handful of points.
Nevertheless, the general lack of progress was on public display as diplomats from all sides expressed frustration with the pace of the discussions.
And returned from Vienna, Iranian officials laid out concerns with Western expectations.
“Illusions need to go,” Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif said on his Twitter account over the weekend, calling the negotiations tough, but possibly fruitful.
Zarif, who has led the negotiations for the Islamic Republic, suggested Western governments hold unrealistic hopes for a final-status nuclear deal.
“Opportunity shouldn’t be missed again, like in 2005,” Zarif said.
Zarif was referring to a 2005 proposal for Iran to convert all of its enriched uranium to fuel rods, making it impossible to use for nuclear weapons.
The proposal was rejected as the United States was not prepared to accept any level of Iranian nuclear enrichment.
Specific requests have been raised by the Iranians as sticking points, though the US will not acknowledge what issues are of contention in private negotiations.
The two primary issues appear to be the number and quality of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain and operate under a deal, and Iran’s retention of a high-powered, heavy-water plutonium reactor in Arak, which could provide the regime with a second path to a nuclear warhead.
“It is ridiculous that the power of the [Arak] reactor would be cut from 40 megawatts to 10 megawatts”, Araghchi said, according to IRNA news agency – an official Iranian outlet.
If operating optimally, Arak could produce about nine kg. of plutonium annually, enough for about two atom bombs, the US Institute for Science and International Security said.
Iran’s atomic energy organization chief said in February that Tehran was prepared to modify Arak, while insisting that Western concerns over Arak were a ploy to apply pressure o n Tehran .
Speaking anonymously, in order to keep the focus of talks on the diplomatic process, one US official warned against politicizing the moment when so few might be left.
“We believe there needs to be some additional realism,” the official said. “Time is not unlimited here.”