x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Opponents line up to torpedo Iran nuclear deal

Hardliners on both sides may take advantage of a break in negotiations to press their governments not to compromise on enrichment issues.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva, where they insisted they were making progress. Jason Reed / Pool via AFP
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva, where they insisted they were making progress. Jason Reed / Pool via AFP

GENEVA // Iran and world powers failed to reach a deal limiting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, creating an opening for opponents from Israel and Saudi Arabia to the US Congress to lobby before negotiations resume in 10 days.

High-ranking diplomats from seven nations fell short of an accord in talks that stretched into a fourth day yesterday in Geneva. A next round has been scheduled to begin on November 20, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.

All sides proclaimed progress, but noted obstacles such as France’s worries over Iran’s enrichment levels and a planned heavy water reactor at Arak that produces plutonium byproducts. On Saturday, Iranian state TV lashed out at the French position, calling the country Israel’s “representatives” at the talks.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said there are “some problems” still to overcome, but called the latest round of negotiations with the six-nation group – the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany – “serious but respectful.”

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said: “I feel very confident that this can be done. I’m not going to tell you it will be, but I can tell you it absolutely can be, with good effort over these next days.”

The pause gives opponents in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Washington time to lobby against any deal that would allow Iran to keep sensitive nuclear technologies and to press for new sanctions. After a stop in Abu Dhabi, Mr Kerry intends to fly back to Washington to brief lawmakers and try to head off further congressional penalties that President Barack Obama’s administration says could scuttle an accord.

The agreement being weighed in Geneva would have offered Iran a temporary easing of the sanctions on petrochemicals, gold and auto trade and some access to frozen assets, according to diplomats.

“Members of Congress who genuinely seek a verifiable freeze and rollback of Iran’s nuclear programme must refrain from actions that tie the hands” of the powers negotiating with Iran, said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

“Neither side can or will get everything it wants,” he said, and “in the absence of a negotiated solution, Iran’s capabilities to produce material for nuclear weapons will only improve”.

The inconclusive outcome also gives hardliners in Iran an opportunity to urge the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to prevent negotiators from conceding too much. On the second night of talks, Ayatollah Khamenei posted a message of support on Twitter for Mr Zarif and his negotiating team, calling them “sons of the revolution”.

Mr Zarif said that differences among the parties were to be expected and that he was pleased all were “on the same wavelength”.

Mr Zarif declined to fault the French foreign minister for raising the issue of the plutonium reactor or obstructing a deal.

“We were discussing nuclear issues and for a country to bring up heavy water is not strange,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to think we are after nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear weapons can be made with highly enriched uranium, which Iran is already capable of producing, or plutonium extracted from spent-fuel used in heavy-water reactors such as Arak.

While Iranian officials have told United Nations monitors that they would postpone operation of the Arak reactor, they would not agree at technical discussions in Vienna last week to shut it or convert it into a light-water reactor. That raised concerns among the six nations negotiating with Iran, according to a Western diplomat.

“Any reactor of that particular type is a serious concern,” said Robert Kelley, a US nuclear engineer who led UN investigations of Iraq’s nuclear programme. At the same time, he said, the facility can be adequately monitored and Iran hasn’t shown any intent to extract plutonium so “Arak is not an immediate threat”.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, led by Director-General Yukiya Amano, will visit Tehran on Monday in their latest bid to win wider access to Iran’s nuclear work. The agency has been trying to obtain updated design information about the Arak reactor. Iran so far has declined to provide the blueprints, saying it is not obliged to do so.

The US and its allies suspect Iran is seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons, which the Islamic republic denies. The decade-long conflict has raised the dual spectres of another war in the Middle East and an Arabian Gulf nuclear arms race if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon.

* Bloomberg with additional reporting by Associated Press