Iran and six world powers made little progress in overcoming significant disagreements in the most recent round of nuclear talks, including on uranium enrichment, Iranian and Western diplomats close to the negotiations said on Friday.
The U.S., meanwhile, is considering softening present demands that Iran gut its uranium enrichment program in favor of a new proposal that would allow Tehran to keep nearly half of the project intact while placing other constraints on its possible use as a path to nuclear weapons, diplomats told The Associated Press.
The U.S., which fears Tehran may enrich to weapons-grade level used to arm nuclear warheads, ideally wants no more than 1,500 centrifuges left operating. Iran insists it wants to use the technology only to make reactor fuel and for other peaceful purposes and insists it be allowed to run at least the present 9,400 machines.
The tentative new U.S. offer attempts to meet the Iranians close to half way on numbers, said two diplomats who demanded anonymity because their information is confidential. They said it envisages letting Iran keep up to 4,500 centrifuges but would reduce the stock of uranium gas fed into the machines to the point where it would take more than a year of enrichment to create enough material for a nuclear warhead.
That, they said, would give the international community enough lead time to react to any such attempt.
International Relations, Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz criticized the proposed deal, saying that “Israel strongly objects to allowing thousands of active centrifuges to remain in Iran.”
What the reported U.S. proposal actually means, said Steinitz, “is that Iran will still have about 4,700 active centrifuges and thousands more that they will be able to reactivate within a matter of months. Such an agreement is reminiscent of the failed agreement signed with North Korea in 2007, which today has around 10 nuclear warheads.”
According to Steinitz, “This is especially severe in light of the fact that just this week Israel announced it has highly reliable information that Iran conducted tests on internal neutron sources at the Parchin military base, which can have no dual-use explanation since the only possible purpose of such internal neutron sources is to ignite the nuclear chain reaction in nuclear weapons.”
Officials from Iran and the six countries had cautioned ahead of the talks in New York that a breakthrough was unlikely to end sanctions on Tehran, although they had hoped substantial progress could be made in narrowing disagreements.
A senior State Department official said gaps “are still serious” with just eight weeks to go before a Nov. 24 deadline.
“We do not have an understanding on all major issues, we have some understandings that are helpful to move this process forward and we have an enormous number of details still to work through,” the official told reporters.
“We still have some very, very difficult understandings yet to reach, and everyone has to make difficult decisions and we continue to look to Iran to make some of the ones necessary for getting to a comprehensive agreement,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat said Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China would likely meet again in the coming weeks, but no date and venue have been set.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a news conference in New York that the “progress we have witnessed in recent days has been extremely slow.”
“We must look forward to the future and make the courageous decisions vis-a-vis this problem,” he said, adding that any deal without lifting all sanctions against Tehran was “unacceptable.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that an interim deal approved in Geneva last November under which Iran had halted higher-level enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief “has made the world safer.”
On a long-term deal, Kerry said “it remains our fervent hope that Iran” and the six powers “can in the next weeks come to an agreement that would benefit the world.”
Kerry and outgoing European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif late on Thursday and again on Friday to discuss next steps in the deadlocked negotiations, one Western diplomat said.
In addition to enrichment, diplomats said the speed of lifting sanctions is a difficult issue, one on which Iranian and Western delegations have sharp differences.
The Western diplomat said the United States and Europeans were prepared to lift their unilateral sanctions very quickly in the event of an acceptable agreement, but U.N. measures would be ended gradually based on Iran’s compliance with any future deal.
“What they would like to see is to get rid of the Security Council sanctions very quickly, immediately,” he said. “But this is not exactly how we think.” He added, however, that Iran was underestimating the speed at which the Western powers were prepared to move on sanctions relief if an agreement is reached.
The diplomat said Rouhani had nothing to offer to move the talks forward.
“There was nothing really new from him,” the diplomat said. “He said we should not miss this historic opportunity over a couple of centrifuges. And by the way, we think the same way.”