UN watchdog, Iran reach accord that could boost nuclear talks

Jonathan S. Landay,Roy GutmanThe Christian Science Monitor

Iran agreed Monday to provide the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency with more information and greater access to key nuclear facilities, but the “Framework for Cooperation” does not address what has been a contentious issue – international insistence that Iran detail its past research into a missile-borne nuclear warhead.

The accord could give a modest boost to separate big power talks on a political settlement to the Iran nuclear dispute that broke up early Sunday in Geneva without an interim deal that would have had Tehran accept limits on its enrichment of uranium in return for temporary relief from harsh economic sanctions.

The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – collectively known as the P5-plus-1 – are demanding that Iran provide U.N. inspectors greater access to its nuclear program as part of any deal.

A public spat over blame for the breakdown in the three-day Geneva talks erupted Monday, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif using Twitter to dispute Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion that it was the Iranians who balked at accepting a draft interim pact that the U.S. and its partners had agreed on.

“Mr. Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half the U.S. draft on Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning?” Zarif wrote, apparently referring to France’s objections to what it saw as insufficient restraints on Iran’s construction of a reactor that could supply plutonium for nuclear warheads.

Western officials, however, asserted that they had agreed on how to address Iran’s heavy water reactor under construction at Arak before presenting the draft interim accord to Iran on Saturday.

Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict monitoring group, said that he understood that Kerry convinced French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to back down from demanding a complete halt to the construction of Arak and accept a six-month suspension.

“The P5-plus-1 was unified on Saturday when we presented our proposal to the Iranians,” Kerry told a news conference Monday in the United Arab Emirates. “The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal. There was unity. But Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment; they weren’t able to accept that particular agreement.”

Those statements fit into what appeared to be a campaign by U.S. officials to stress that it was Iranian hesitation and not disunity among the U.S. and its negotiating partners that prevented an agreement from being reached over the weekend.

“While the P5-plus-1 nations were united in the proposal that was put forward, at the end it was Iran that was not prepared to sign the agreement,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told Israel’s Channel Two TV in an interview.

In an effort to overcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s characterization of the proposed agreement as “a bad deal” last week, Shapiro said that Iran’s reluctance to sign proved just the opposite. “That suggest it’s a very tough agreement and that they didn’t feel that they were in a position to do it without at least going home and consulting their government,” he said.

One sticking point when negotiators resume their talks Nov. 20 in Geneva is likely to be the issue of what Tehran calls its “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Enrichment is the process that turns raw uranium ore into a purer state – either low-enriched uranium for use in power-generating plants or highly enriched uranium for nuclear warheads. The purity of the uranium produced depends on the duration of the procedure.

Iran insists it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the global system to halt the spread of nuclear arms. But the Obama administration argues that that right isn’t automatic and that Iran has sacrificed any assumption that it is because it kept its nuclear program hidden for 18 years and has failed to cooperate with U.N. inspectors.

However, officials familiar with the negotiations said that any deal will likely include a recognition that Iran be allowed to have an enrichment capability, but only if it agrees to restrictions that would give air-tight confidence that it would not be used to build a nuclear weapons.

Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, a nonpartisan think tank, said she doesn’t believe that Iran wants explicit recognition of its right to enrich.“They want some wording that they can translate into the right to enrich,” she said.

Despite the impasse, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in a statement Monday to the lower house of Parliament, said that “a deal is on the table, and there is no doubt in my mind that it can be reached.”

The prospects for an interim political accord may have been boosted with the Framework for Cooperation signed in Tehran by Yukiya Amano, the director general of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, and Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, a former negotiator who also heads the country’s nuclear authority.

Under the arrangement, Iran will within the next three months provide the IAEA with what was called “managed access” to its main uranium mine at Gachin and to the plant that produces heavy water coolant for the Arak reactor. The agreement didn’t say how limited the “managed access” would be but that Iran will determine the restrictions.

Iran also agreed to answer longstanding IAEA demands for information on 16 nuclear reactors and new enrichment facilities for which Tehran has announced construction plans.

“It is foreseen that Iran’s cooperation will include providing the IAEA with timely information about its nuclear facilities and in regard to the implementation of transparency measures. Activities will proceed in a step-by-step manner,” said an IAEA-Iran statement.

The framework made no reference to what the IAEA calls the “suspected military dimensions” of the Iranian program, an issue that Amano said would be dealt with later.

“The outstanding issues . . . will be addressed in the subsequent steps under the Framework for Cooperation,” Amano said in a statement.

Amano has for several years demanded that Iran provide the full history of the program, which is based on knowhow and technology Iran purchased from an international smuggling ring headed by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

Iran has refused to answer questions about documents and other evidence obtained by the IAEA concerning research it conducted until at least the end of 2003 into a missile-borne nuclear warhead and a conventional explosives detonation system.

U.S. intelligence analysts believe that Iran halted the development of a nuclear warhead in late 2003, but that it wants to have in place the ability to quickly build a bomb should it ever decide to do so.

Experts who follow the issue closely described Monday’s agreement as a modest step forward that could in time improve confidence between the sides and eventually allow Iran to disclose the entire history of its nuclear program.

The framework is a “vague and general” accord that if implemented could help energize the political negotiations in Geneva, said Mark Hibbs, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Berlin.

McClatchy special correspondent Joel Greenberg contributed from Jerusalem. Gutman reported from Istanbul.

By Jonathan S. Landay and Roy Gutman
McClatchy Washington Bureau