Created on Tuesday, 15 October 2013 Written by GEORGE JAHN, Associated Press JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press
GENEVA (AP) — Iran offered what it called a potential "breakthrough" Tuesday in the long-deadlocked nuclear talks meant to ease fears that it wants atomic arms.
FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2013 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, right, attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York. The five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany meet Iran in Geneva on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 to try to reduce concerns that Tehran wants to build nuclear weapons while satisfying Iran’s demands to recognize its right to peaceful nuclear activities. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)
Nuts and bolts of this week's Iran nuclear talks
GEORGE JAHN, Associated Press
The five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany meet Iran in Geneva on Tuesday and Wednesday to try to reduce concerns that Tehran wants to build nuclear weapons while satisfying Iran's demands to recognize its right to peaceful nuclear activities. A look at the players, the talks and the issues:
Meeting Iran's negotiating team are delegations from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. The six nations are commonly known as the P5+1 because they group the five permanent members of the Security Council along with Germany. European nations in the group prefer the designation E3+3.
The P5+1 delegations are headed by political directors or their equivalents who answer directly to their nations' foreign ministers. Iran's team will be led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. But except for the opening session, the main Iranian negotiator will be a deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi.
The talks are being convened by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat.
The P5+1 wants Iran to curb or stop all nuclear activities that can be used to make nuclear weapons. The most immediate concern is Tehran's uranium enrichment program.
Iran says it is enriching only to power reactors and for research, but enrichment can also produce the fissile core of nuclear arms. Tehran has not enriched to that level, but it has produced some material that can be turned into weapons-grade uranium quickly. It also has tons of lower-level enriched uranium that can also be re-enriched into weapons grade material over a longer time-frame.
Iran is also working on a reactor that experts say will produce enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons a year, once completed. Tehran says the reactor is needed to produce isotopes for medical treatment and expects to finish work next year. The plutonium would have to be converted for use in nuclear weapons, and the U.N.'s atomic energy agency has said it has seen no evidence that Iran is working on a conversion facility.
Iran wants international sanctions crippling its oil exports and financial transactions eased and ultimately removed for any concessions it makes on its nuclear program. Ahead of the talks, Iranian officials have suggested Tehran may be ready to stop enriching to 20 percent, a level that is only a technical step away from weapons grade uranium. They have also indicated readiness to give U.N. experts more overview of Tehran's nuclear program.
That is not enough for the P5+1. It seeks sweeping curbs on all of Iran's enrichment activities. That means capping the number and kind of centrifuges churning out enriched uranium, now at over 10,000. It also wants Iran to ship out all enriched uranium that it does not need for verifiable peaceful activities, instead of keeping a large stockpile that theoretically could be turned to weapons use.
Araghchi says Tehran would never ship enriched materials abroad, describing that stance as "our red line," according to Iran's state television.
In addition, the group wants Iran to shut down Fordo, the smaller of its two known enrichment facilities, because it is so well fortified that it would be difficult to destroy in case Tehran decided to use it for making weapons-grade uranium.
Further down the negotiating road, the P5+1 wants a stop to the construction of the reactor that will produce plutonium.
The present negotiations are an outgrowth of talks that began 10 years ago between Iran and France, Britain and Germany. The United States, Russia and China joined in three years later amid growing U.N. and other international sanctions on Tehran meant to force it into a nuclear compromise.
The talks have proceeded in fits and starts with Iran's negotiating partners for years rejecting Iranian demands that its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes be recognized. They now are ready to accept some Iranian enrichment but only if Tehran agrees to rigorous international oversight, caps the size of its program and ships out enriched uranium stockpiles.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said many things were new in the plan but negotiators had agreed to keep details confidential during the morning bargaining session.
"We think that the proposal we have made has the capacity to make a breakthrough," he told reporters.
European Union official Michael Mann said Iran's PowerPoint presentation lasted about one hour, which suggested that Tehran had come into the talks with a detailed plan to address international concerns about its nuclear agenda.
"We heard a presentation this morning from Foreign Minister (Javad) Zarif. It was very useful," Mann told reporters.
Iran's uranium enrichment program is at the core of the six powers' concerns. Iran now has more than 10,000 centrifuges churning out enriched uranium, which can be used either to power reactors or as the fissile core of a nuclear bomb. Iran has long insisted it does not want nuclear arms — a claim the U.S. and its allies have been skeptical about — but has resisted international attempts to verify its aims.
Yet Tehran is now under international sanctions that are biting deeply into its troubled economy. Since the election of reformist Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June, Iranian officials have said they are ready to compromise with the West.
But the U.S, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany are eager to test whether those words translate into real progress such as increased international monitoring and scaling back on uranium enrichment.
"We have seen some positive mood music coming out of Tehran," Mann said. "But of course the most important thing is that they actually follow it up with concrete proposals that address our concerns."
The first session of the two-day talks — the first since Rouhani's election — lasted about 2 ½ hours before breaking shortly after noon. Back pains suffered by Zarif, Iran's chief negotiator, threatened to complicate the process.
Mann said the pains did not stop Zarif from having a "cordial" dinner Monday evening with Catherine Ashton, the top EU diplomat convening the talks. But Araqchi said Zarif was "suffering a lot," although he intended to stay in Geneva until the talks ended.
Iran's state TV, which closely reflects government views, said Tehran offered to discuss uranium enrichment levels at the talks. The report also said Iran proposed adopting the additional protocols of the U.N.'s nuclear treaty — effectively opening its nuclear facilities to wider inspection and monitoring — if the West recognizes Iran's right to enrichment uranium under the U.N. pact.
Of the tons of enriched uranium in Iran's stockpile, most is enriched to under 5 percent — a level that need weeks of further enrichment to turn into weapons-level uranium. But it also has nearly 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of 20 percent-enriched uranium, a form that can be quickly upgraded for weapons use, according to the U.N's atomic agency, which keeps tabs on Iran's nuclear activities. That is close to — but still below — what is needed for one nuclear weapon.
One immediate change from previous talks was the choice of language. Mann told reporters they were being held in English, unlike previous rounds under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani's hard-line predecessor, where Farsi translation was provided.
No final deal is expected at the two-day session. However, if the Iranians succeed in building trust, the talks could be the launching pad for a deal that has proven elusive since negotiations on Iran's nuclear program began in 2003.
A former senior U.N. official who has acted as an intermediary between U.S. and Iranian officials said the six powers want significant cuts in the number of Iranian centrifuges now enriching uranium.
They also demand that Iran ship out to another country not only the 20 percent uranium it now has but also most of the tons of low-enriched uranium it has produced. And they want caps on the amount of enriched uranium that Iran would be allowed to keep at any time. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the talks.
Iran says it needs this material to power a future reactor network. Iranian state television has quoted Araqchi as saying Tehran was ready to discuss its enrichment program but would never ship enriched materials abroad. He described that stance as "our red line."
While seeking only to reduce enrichment at Iran's sprawling underground facility at Natanz, the six powers also want complete closure of another enrichment plant at Fordo, south of Tehran. The Fordo site is heavily fortified, making it more difficult to destroy than Natanz if it turns toward making nuclear weapons.
Demands to reduce enrichment instead of stopping it implicitly recognize Iran's right to enrich for peaceful purposes. That already is a victory for Tehran, considering talks began 10 years ago with the international community calling on the Islamic Republic to mothball its enrichment program.
Araghchi said subsequent sessions would be conducted at the deputy foreign minister level, meaning that he would head the Iranian side.