Iran set for reputational repair as Vienna talks envisage July 20th nuclear accord

After 20 years of dispute, everyone wins if agreement is reached

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: “We will not abandon . . . our technological advances.” Photograph: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif: “We will not abandon . . . our technological advances.” Photograph: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader


The fifth round of negotiations between Iran and the “P5 + 1” – the members of the Security Council plus Germany – began in Vienna on Tuesday. The participants hope to begin drafting a final accord on Iran’s nuclear programme this week, with a target deadline of July 20th.

If agreement is reached, it will end the two-decade-long nuclear dispute, remove the greatest impediment to Iran’s rehabilitation in the international community and boost the failing Iranian economy.

President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, were in charge of negotiations with the great power group from 2003 until the election of the provocative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Rouhani made a key the symbol of his election campaign last year, signifying that he, as an experienced negotiator, held the key to ending the nuclear impasse.

Role of Russia

Before Ahmadinejad’s election, Rouhani and Zarif had negotiated an agreement under which Russia was to have provided fuel for Iran’s civil nuclear power plant at Bushehr.

But George W Bush insisted that Iran stop its enrichment programme altogether. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran believes it’s entitled to nuclear power. Tehran’s relations with the West and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sank to an all-time low. In 2012, the UN and EU imposed draconian sanctions.

The Bush administration’s policy of pressure and sanctions led to the election of Ahmadinejad and unprecedented expansion of Iran’s nuclear programme, Zarif wrote in the Washington Post last week.

“In the past 10 years, Iran has gone from 200 to 20,000 centrifuges,” Zarif noted. “Our enrichment capacity has risen from 3.5 to 20 per cent, and the Arak heavy-water research reactor is less than a year from being commissioned . . . We will not abandon . . . our technological advances.”

Rouhani says the Bush administration practised “nuclear apartheid”. In a huge advance for Iran, he has obtained recognition of Iran’s right to enrichment.

Issues that must be resolved before the final agreement include: the number and type of centrifuges Iran keeps, and the level of enrichment and the length of the agreement – whether 10 or 20 years. Iran will conclude a separate agreement with the IAEA on monitoring the agreement.

Centrifuge numbers

Iran has 20,000 first- and second-generation centrifuges at Fordo and Natanz, but it is developing fifth-generation centrifuges that are 15 times more powerful. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, the most hawkish member of the P5 + 1 group, wants Iran to have no more than 2,000 centrifuges.

The level of enrichment is very important, because the amount of time it takes to obtain fissile, weapons grade material is in inverse proportion to the degree of enrichment. It takes longer to go from 3.5 per cent to 5 per cent, and from 5 per cent to 20 per cent, than it does to go from 20 per cent to 90 per cent – weapons grade.

In last November’s interim agreement, half of Iran’s 800kg of 20-per-cent-enriched uranium was transformed into 3.5 per cent, suitable for medical research. The other half was transformed into gas – all since January, under the watchful eye of inspectors. Radical conservatives complained that Iran had given up too much.

The P5 + 1 had hoped Iran would accept 5 per cent enrichment, but a western source in Tehran believes the final deal will allow 20 per cent enrichment. That’s the level Iran has attained, and it’s the level required for nuclear power reactor fuel; it would be discriminatory to refuse when Iran is co-operating fully.

In Iran and the US, conservative hardliners are trying to thwart an agreement. So is Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “This will be one of the most important deals in the history of the world,” Rouhani told journalists on June 14th. “But it has serious foes.”

Alluding to Israel and Saudi Arabia, he added, “Some countries in the region believe an agreement would not be good for them. They are wrong. It will foster peace and stability. If they’re worried about it, it means their hearts are not pure. If you want to be certain we are not going to develop a bomb, we can give that assurance.”

Sanctions as hurdle

The US Congress’s approval of an end to sanctions in exchange for a nuclear deal could be the biggest hurdle, especially if Republicans win control of the Senate next November.

Israel and right-wing US lawmakers have propagated what Zarif calls “the myth of breakout” – the idea that Iran might later violate an accord and go hell-bent for the bomb. To do so, Zarif argues, Iran would have to expel all IAEA inspectors, reconfigure its programme to make weapons grade fissile material, then weaponise it. “This would take several years – not a few months,” he wrote.

If Iran had wanted to develop a bomb, Zarif argues, it would have done so under Ahmadinejad’s rule, when “Iran had time, little international constraints, relatively relaxed monitoring and enough centrifuges to press ahead towards a bomb” .

The 16 US intelligence agencies who draw up the US National Intelligence Estimates concluded in 2007 – and again in 2012 – that it had not done so.

Some analysts remain suspicious. “I think Iran wanted the bomb, because of the balance of terror vis-a-vis Israel and Saudi Arabia,” says a western source in Tehran. “But now they realise it’s more urgent to save the economy.”

Rouhani is preparing the Iranian public for the possibility the talks could fail. If they do, he says, “The conditions will not revert back to the past ... The sanctions regime will not be the same.” Several countries now consider US use of sanctions to be excessive.

“If we don’t make a deal, it’s not the end of the world for us,” Rouhani continued. “Everyone knows Iran is serious about negotiations. Everyone knows an agreement would be win:win, and that if we cannot achieve it, everybody loses. I think they are more desperate than we are to achieve the final deal.”