Talks between Iran and West end without nuclear deal

Prospect of Saturday signing scuppered by France’s insistence on harsher terms; sides to meet again in Geneva on November 20

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, gestures to Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, as they arrive at a press conference at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva, Sunday, November 10, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jason Reed, Pool)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, gestures to Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, as they arrive at a press conference at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva, Sunday, November 10, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jason Reed, Pool)

Talks in Geneva between world powers and Iran ended early Sunday morning without a deal on Iran’s rogue nuclear program, after hitting a snag on Saturday when France questioned the terms of a proposed agreement. The sides agreed to meet again in Geneva on November 20, but at the level of “political directors” rather than foreign ministers.

France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the talks had managed to narrow differences without eliminating them and that there were still questions to be dealt with in future rounds.

“From the start, France wanted an agreement to the important question of Iran’s nuclear program,” he said, according to Sky News. “The Geneva meeting allowed us to advance, but we were not able to conclude because there are still some questions to be addressed.”

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said a lot of progress had been made. At a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ashton said, “We’re not going into the details of our discussions but I pay tribute to all the ministers, including Laurent Fabius’s attempt to try and help support this process.”

Ashton appeared more disappointed than Zarif that the marathon negotiations had failed to yield an agreement. A relaxed and smiling Zarif, indeed, said it was “natural that when we start dealing with the details there would be differences of views, and we expected that.”

He said he was “not disappointed at all” that a final deal had proved elusive, and asked directly whether he attributed the failure to France, chose not to assign blame. He said he had been hoping to find “the political will to end this” nuclear standoff, and said, “I think we’re all on the same wavelength.” This would give the sides the “impetus” to move forward next time — “something to build on,” he said. If there weren’t differences, he added, smiling again, the sides would not have needed to meet.

Chances of bridging all differences appeared to diminish as the day went on, but efforts continued until after midnight. The foreign ministers of the P5+1 delegations held a last-ditch meeting late Saturday, and were later joined by Zarif, in an apparent effort to salvage the talks.

Zarif earlier held a reported five-hour trilateral meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ashton over the contents of a draft agreement.

The Iranian foreign minister also held meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ashton, after which Lavrov and Kerry also met.

Israel lobbied hard against the deal on Saturday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz reported to have spoken to representatives of some of the P5+1 nations. US President Barack Obama called Netanyahu on Friday after the prime minister publicly castigated the emerging deal as “very, very bad” and “dangerous” and said he had pleaded with Kerry not to sign it. Netanyahu also spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Fabius said earlier that Tehran was resisting demands that it suspend work on a plutonium-producing reactor and downgrade its stockpile of higher-enriched uranium to a level that cannot quickly be turned into the core of an atomic bomb. His remarks to France-Inter radio were the first to provide some specifics on the obstacles at the Geneva talks.

Iran's heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak (photo credit: AP Photo/ISNA,Hamid Foroutan
Iran’s heavy water nuclear facilities near the central city of Arak (photo credit: AP Photo/ISNA,Hamid Foroutan

Fabius mentioned differences over Iran’s Arak reactor southeast of Tehran, which could produce enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons a year once it goes online. He also said there was disagreement over efforts to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment to levels that would require substantial further enriching before they could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.

The six powers were considering a gradual rollback of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. In exchange, they demanded initial curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, including a cap on uranium enrichment to a level that cannot be turned quickly to weapons use.

Obama said on Friday that the Iranians could be provided with “some very modest relief” in economic pressure, but that the “core sanctions” would remain in place, and pressure could be “cranked” back up if Tehran failed to honor its commitments in the coming months.

Iran, which denies any interest in nuclear weapons, currently runs more than 10,000 centrifuges that have created tons of fuel-grade material that can be further enriched to arm nuclear warheads. It also has nearly 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be turned into weapons much more quickly. Experts say 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of that 20 percent-enriched uranium are needed to produce a single warhead.

Iran says it expects Arak, the plutonium producing reactor, to be completed and go online sometime next year. It would need additional facilities to reprocess the plutonium into weapons-grade material and the UN’s nuclear agency monitoring Iran’s atomic activities says it has seen no evidence of such a project.

Fabius said Iran is opposed to suspending work on Arak but that suspension was absolutely necessary

Iran is also being asked to blend down “a great part of this stock at 20%, to 5%,” Fabius said. Uranium enriched to 5% is considered reactor fuel grade and upgrading it to weapons-level takes much longer than for 20% enriched uranium. He also suggested that the six powers were looking for an Iranian commitment to cap future enrichment at 5%.

Any agreement would be a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks, but would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran’s potential ability to produce nuclear arms, with no guarantee of ultimate success.

Kerry and his European counterparts arrived in Geneva on Friday with the talks at a critical stage following a full day of negotiations Thursday.

The presence of the foreign ministers provoked intense speculation on at least an interim deal.

Netanyahu on Friday insisted the agreement in the making was a “bad deal” that gave Iran a pass by offering to lift sanctions for cosmetic concessions that he said left intact Tehran’s nuclear weapons-making ability. Israel is strongly critical of any deal that even slightly relieves  sanctions unless Iran is totally stripped of technology that can make nuclear arms. Netanyahu stressed that Israel was “not obligated by this agreement” and would do “everything” it needed in order to defend itself against the Iranian nuclear threat.

Asked about Netanyahu’s criticism, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “any critique of the deal is premature” because an agreement had not been reached.

The White House late Friday said Obama called Netanyahu to update him on the ongoing talks and said Obama affirmed he’s still committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The White House said Obama and Netanyahu would stay in close contact.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the press about Iran at Ben Gurion Airport, Friday, November 8, 2013 (Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the press about Iran at Ben Gurion Airport, Friday, November 8, 2013 (Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)

Israeli officials criticized Obama and the US government Friday as though a deal with Iran was a fait accompli, saying the president “is bringing about a disaster,” Channel 10 reported. The anonymous sources contended that Obama is pressured to arrive at a deal with the Iranians and wants to get the issue off the agenda. The officials, who said Israel opposed any agreement that left Iran with an enrichment capability, were quoted as saying preemptively that Israel rejected the deal taking shape in Geneva.

Netanyahu on Friday described the proposals on the table as the “deal of the century” for Iran, and publicly urged Kerry — with whom he met on Friday morning — not to sign it and to “reconsider.”

In comments to Israeli television on Thursday, Kerry suggested Washington was looking for an Iranian commitment to stop any expansion of nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons, as a first step. “We are asking them to step up and provide a complete freeze over where they are today,” Kerry said.

According to Channel 10, the deal in the works would have the Iranians halt uranium enrichment to 20% purity, and their existing stocks of 20% would be converted to fuel rods; enrichment to 3.5% purity would be able to continue at Natanz and Qom. Further, operations at the Arak heavy water reactor would have to cease. In exchange, the report said, the Iranians would have sanctions lifted on petrochemical products, gold, auto and airplane parts, and assets worth $3 billion would be unfrozen.

Tehran could be pressing for more significant relief from the sanctions as part of any first-step deal. Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted Iranian delegation member Majid Takht-e Ravanchi as saying his country was asking for an end to sanctions on oil and international banking transactions crippling the ability to repatriate money from oil sales.

Israel has been watching the talks warily from the sidelines. It has frequently dangled the prospect of military action against Iran should negotiations fail to reach the deal it seeks — a total shutdown of uranium enrichment and other nuclear programs Tehran says are peaceful but which could technically be turned toward weapons.

“I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should, because they got everything and paid nothing,” Netanyahu told reporters Friday. Looking agitated and addressing the media alone — rather than at a traditional joint appearance with the visiting US secretary — he reiterated his opposition to the emerging agreement.

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