The Viennese Waltz With Iran Begins

Negotiators are meeting in Vienna this week to begin hammering out a final deal between Iran and the P5+1 on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, but the endeavor still faces a few major stumbling blocks:

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome, six-power diplomats said, is Iran’s stance regarding its uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which one negotiator described as a “huge problem”. … “The Iranians have not yet shown a willingness to reduce their centrifuges to an acceptable number, making it difficult to envision a compromise at this point that we could all live with,” the negotiator told Reuters. Another Western official close to the talks confirmed the remarks as accurate.

A senior Iranian official seemed to confirm the assessment. “Our Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) has set a red line for the negotiators and that cannot change and should be respected,” he told Reuters. “Uranium enrichment should be continued and none of the nuclear sites will be closed.

On another key disagreement, however, Iran is backing down:

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, acknowledged amid a week of negotiations in Vienna that Tehran now accepts the principle that as part of the deal sanctions on its economy would be gradually eased as Iran gradually complies with limits on its nuclear activities.

Iran’s official line has been that it would require an immediate lifting of all of the sanctions at the time the deal is signed. The economic penalties have choked off its oil exports and limited its trade, and the Iranian government needs to have them lifted as soon as possible to help restore its teetering economy. “It’s a big deal,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group risk consulting firm. “Iran is recognizing that lifting sanctions will be tough and take time here. Araqchi’s statement lifts one barrier, a significant one, to a deal.”

David Sanger latest update (NYT) on negotiations:

The problem is that just as the Americans talk about reducing the number of centrifuges by roughly three-quarters, to just a few thousand operating machines, the Iranians propose expanding the numbers by tens of thousands. (There are 19,000 installed today, but only about half are running.)

At issue is a fundamental difference in points of view — Iran says it wants to produce all its own fuel for nuclear power plants — though it has only one major plant running, and the fuel for that comes from Russia. The West insists Iran should have only a token capacity, for research reactors.

“There’s no splitting the difference here,” said Robert J. Einhorn, who was on the American negotiating team until last year, and still advises the United States. “If the Iranians keep taking the view that they must have the capacity to fuel power reactors, they are not going to even get in the ballpark of the numbers the U.S. is talking about.”

Nader Uskowi scrutinizes the Iranian delegation’s upbeat attitude:

From what is reported of the talks so far, it seems that signing the JCPOA by 20 July deadline seems increasingly unlikely, and the six-month transition period under the current interim JPOA needs to be renewed.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif still sounded optimistic, saying the final deal could be struck in July. But Mr. Zarif’s optimism could be because of his zeal to finalize the deal and to have the sanctions lifted as soon as possible. Iran was spending billions of dollars on the Syrian war, and now might be forced to spend billions of dollars more on the Iraqi conflict. The country needs to sell oil and use global banking system to finance the two wars. Considering that urgent need, Zarif might be saying something profound: The JCPOA will be signed, Iran will sign it, even if it has to give in on its demands, including the number of centrifuges.

But Ali Vaez worries that the negotiations will end up bogged down in “false dilemmas”:

The P5+1 is obsessed with the concept of “breakout time,” the time required to enrich enough uranium to weapons grade for one bomb. To lengthen it, the group is trying to define Iran’s “practical needs” for enriched uranium as minimally as possible. By contrast, Iran, having invested enormous resources and pride in its enrichment program, is trying to define those needs in maximal terms.

The negotiations will not get far debating over “needs,” which are ultimately a matter of interpretation. By the same token, breakout calculations are rough and purely theoretical guesstimates. They ignore time-consuming preparatory steps, inevitable technical glitches, the unpredictable weaponization process, the strategic and military illogic of breaking out with a single untested weapon, and the many convolutions of political decision making. Reducing a complex process to a one-dimensional race against time distorts reality, and overlooks competing interests and the natural tendency to avoid risk—including the nonnegligible risk of being caught.

Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright cover misconceptions about breakout time:

As a former U.S. official told the journalist Laura Rozen, “What everyone tends to forget is that, when U.S. government and academic experts speak on breakout timelines, they are usually describing a worst-case scenario … where Iran gets everything right the first time around, even if they are completing procedures they have never attempted before.”

Once a bomb is built, there’s testing to be done. States with nuclear weapons typically conduct multiple test explosions—particularly for the smaller, more efficient designs needed for missile warheads. Eight out of the nine countries that have nuclear weapons openly conducted tests before deployment—and the ninth, Israel, seems to have conducted a clandestine test off of South Africa. Preparing, conducting, and evaluating a test would take months—and would also mean that a new bomb had to be built, since the test would have eliminated the first one.

In short, even if “breakout time,” as conventionally defined, is only a few months, or even a few weeks, what you might call the “effective breakout time”—the time it takes to produce a deliverable weapon—is closer to a year, maybe longer.

Recent Dish on the Iran talks here, here, and here.