Progress made at Iran nuclear talks

Timetable and framework for negotiating a comprehensive agreement is agreed

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif deliver a press statement after a conference in Vienna today. Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif deliver a press statement after a conference in Vienna today. Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

 

In what officials described as a serious, workmanlike and conversational atmosphere, Iran and six world powers have agreed on a timetable and framework for negotiating a comprehensive agreement to end the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and Iran’s foreign minister said tonight.

While details were vague and the two delegation leaders declined to take any questions at a closing news conference, they said that groups of experts would meet early in March and the full delegations would meet here again on March 17th, with the expectation that they will meet monthly.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in brief remarks: “We had three very productive days during which we have identified all the issues we need to address to reach a comprehensive and final agreement. There is a lot to do, it won’t be easy, but we have made a good start.”

Officials refused to describe the topics for the expert meetings, but a senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the session’s ground rules, said,

“Every issue of concern to us is on the table,” including uranium enrichment, Iran’s heavy-water reactor project and its suspected nuclear military research and ballistic missile program. All these issues, the official said, including clarifying the issue of Iran’s past military research, are at least mentioned in a joint plan of action agreed upon with Iran in November in Geneva.

“All our concerns must be met to get an agreement,” said the US official, defining Washington’s goals as ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and that world powers can be confident that Iran’s nuclear program has no military aspect or intent, as Iran maintains.

The care that officials on all sides took not to say anything very specific was striking, as was the positive atmosphere they described in the meetings, which were said by one official to have no element of political rhetoric or posturing, even over “areas of difficulty.”

It was clear that neither side wanted any note of failure in this first round of talks on a comprehensive deal, but it was also clear that most of the work here was about setting an agenda and establishing the priority of the issues at stake, without entering into a substantive discussion of those issues.

Iranian officials have said publicly that only their nuclear program is on the agenda, not their larger military structure, and that they will not dismantle any part of their nuclear program or give up what they have called their right to modernize it. US officials have emphasized that large parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will have to be dismantled, as opposed to simply disabled, as part of a final deal.

A temporary six-month deal to essentially freeze Iran’s program in return for modest relief from sanctions and the release of some frozen assets expires on July 20th. The officials said they had planned meetings throughout the next four months, but wanted to leave the last month free, because negotiations tend to accelerate and intensify closer to deadlines.

“This is going to be both a marathon and a sprint at the same time,” the US official said. The six-month deal can be extended if both sides agree. The Iranians also suggested that Ashton might make a visit to Iran before the March 17th meeting. Ashton leads the talks for the six world powers: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - plus Germany.

Western officials and experts concede that Iran will have an enrichment program, but they want to constrain and control it to ensure that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon quickly or undetected. They want some formula that limits the level of enrichment; caps the stockpiles of enriched uranium; dismantles or decommissions a large number of Iran’s centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium; removes the possibility that the heavy-water reactor will produce plutonium; and allows a deeper level of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, signed by Iran.

Iran, for its part, wants the removal of crippling economic sanctions imposed upon it by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. At the same time, it wants to preserve its dignity and what it calls its right to enrich uranium and to have a peaceful nuclear program like other signatories to the nonproliferation treaty.

The senior US official cautioned that public statements by all sides made to domestic audiences might inevitably create political difficulties, but that both sides here had agreed to try to be “thoughtful” about comments that might hurt the chance of successful negotiations.

The head of the US delegation, Wendy R. Sherman, will travel Thursday from Vienna to brief allies in Jerusalem; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and two cities in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, while telephoning other allies and key members of the US Congress.

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