Iran offered what it called a potential “breakthrough” Tuesday in the long-deadlocked nuclear talks meant to ease fears that it wants atomic arms.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said many things were new in the plan but negotiators had agreed to keep details confidential during the morning bargaining session.
“We think that the proposal we have made has the capacity to make a breakthrough,” he told reporters.
European Union official Michael Mann said Iran’s PowerPoint presentation lasted about one hour, which suggested that Tehran had come into the talks with a detailed plan to address international concerns about its nuclear agenda.
“We heard a presentation this morning from Foreign Minister (Javad) Zarif. It was very useful,” Mann told reporters.
Iran’s uranium enrichment program is at the core of the six powers’ concerns. Iran now has more than 10,000 centrifuges churning out enriched uranium, which can be used either to power reactors or as the fissile core of a nuclear bomb. Iran has long insisted it does not want nuclear arms – a claim the U.S. and its allies have been skeptical about – but has resisted international attempts to verify its aims.
Yet Tehran is now under international sanctions that are biting deeply into its troubled economy. Since the election of reformist Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June, Iranian officials have said they are ready to compromise with the West.
But the U.S, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany are eager to test whether those words translate into real progress such as increased international monitoring and scaling back on uranium enrichment.
“We have seen some positive mood music coming out of Tehran,” Mann said. “But of course the most important thing is that they actually follow it up with concrete proposals that address our concerns.”
The first session of the two-day talks – the first since Rouhani’s election – lasted about 2 ½ hours before breaking shortly after noon. Back pains suffered by Zarif, Iran’s chief negotiator, threatened to complicate the process.
Mann said the pains did not stop Zarif from having a “cordial” dinner Monday evening with Catherine Ashton, the top EU diplomat convening the talks. But Araqchi said Zarif was “suffering a lot,” although he intended to stay in Geneva until the talks ended.
Iran’s state TV, which closely reflects government views, said Tehran offered to discuss uranium enrichment levels at the talks. The report also said Iran proposed adopting the additional protocols of the U.N.’s nuclear treaty – effectively opening its nuclear facilities to wider inspection and monitoring – if the West recognizes Iran’s right to enrichment uranium under the U.N. pact.
Of the tons of enriched uranium in Iran’s stockpile, most is enriched to under 5 percent – a level that need weeks of further enrichment to turn into weapons-level uranium. But it also has nearly 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of 20 percent-enriched uranium, a form that can be quickly upgraded for weapons use, according to the U.N’s atomic agency, which keeps tabs on Iran’s nuclear activities. That is close to – but still below – what is needed for one nuclear weapon.
One immediate change from previous talks was the choice of language. Mann told reporters they were being held in English, unlike previous rounds under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani’s hard-line predecessor, where Farsi translation was provided.
No final deal is expected at the two-day session. However, if the Iranians succeed in building trust, the talks could be the launching pad for a deal that has proven elusive since negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program began in 2003.
A former senior U.N. official who has acted as an intermediary between U.S. and Iranian officials said the six powers want significant cuts in the number of Iranian centrifuges now enriching uranium.
They also demand that Iran ship out to another country not only the 20 percent uranium it now has but also most of the tons of low-enriched uranium it has produced. And they want caps on the amount of enriched uranium that Iran would be allowed to keep at any time. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the talks.
Iran says it needs this material to power a future reactor network. Iranian state television has quoted Araqchi as saying Tehran was ready to discuss its enrichment program but would never ship enriched materials abroad. He described that stance as “our red line.”
While seeking only to reduce enrichment at Iran’s sprawling underground facility at Natanz, the six powers also want complete closure of another enrichment plant at Fordo, south of Tehran. The Fordo site is heavily fortified, making it more difficult to destroy than Natanz if it turns toward making nuclear weapons.
Demands to reduce enrichment instead of stopping it implicitly recognize Iran’s right to enrich for peaceful purposes. That already is a victory for Tehran, considering talks began 10 years ago with the international community calling on the Islamic Republic to mothball its enrichment program.
Araghchi said subsequent sessions would be conducted at the deputy foreign minister level, meaning that he would head the Iranian side.