Nuclear talks in Vienna. May 14, 2014
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before nuclear talks in Vienna, May 14, 2014. Photo by AP
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Two months of tense and intensive negotiations planned between Iran and the six world powers opened Wednesday in Vienna with the goal of formulating a permanent agreement governing the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by July 20.

The fourth round of talks is meant to take the negotiations to the next level. As a first step toward formulating a detailed draft agreement, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is directing the talks for the six powers, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, met to put into writing issues on which there is agreement.

On the eve of the talks, American negotiators took pains to lower expectations by making clear that the gaps between the sides were still wide.

In the past three months, representatives of Iran and the six powers — the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany — have held three rounds of talks in Vienna. The delegations to the talks mapped out all the issues that must be addressed in the final agreement, highlighted the issues still in dispute and made preliminary proposals for possible solutions.

Delegates from both sides this week have noted that the latest round of talks, which is expected to last until at least Friday, launches a critical phase in the negotiations. Zarif told Iranian journalists that another two rounds of talks have already been scheduled.

The closer the sides get to July 20, which ends the six-month period allotted for the talks, the more intensive the talks will become. According to Zarif, the heads of the negotiating teams have cleared their schedules for two weeks prior to the date in preparation for marathon negotiating sessions.

The first three rounds of negotiations are regarded as having been relatively successful, with the parties making slow but steady progress. Although many gaps were only slightly narrowed, the fact that the talks have been moving in a positive direction has generated optimism on both sides that a deal could be reached by July 20.

Nevertheless, senior members of the U.S. negotiating team warned that the gaps were still substantial and that an agreement was by no means assured. “It appears that everyone has come to the table wanting a diplomatic solution, but having the intent doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen,” a senior American official told a press briefing on Tuesday.

The official stressed that the next two months of talks are expected to be especially difficult.

“I would caution people that just because we will be drafting it certainly doesn’t mean an agreement is imminent,” the official said. “There are a range of complicated issues to address. And we do not know if Iran will be able to make the tough decisions they must to assure the world that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that their program is for entirely peaceful purposes “
According to the official, there are solutions to the issues still in dispute, but
agreeing on them will not be simple.

“There are some very significant gaps. It’s not that there aren’t solutions to those gaps; there are. But getting to them is another matter, and I cannot tell you today that we will with great certainty get there,” the official said. “Optimism alone will not get us a comprehensive plan of action. We can get to a resolution, I believe, but whether we can, whether we have the intent to and whether we will are all quite different matters.”

In recent weeks, it seemed that a solution was emerging to the dispute on the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor, which the West and Israel fear will be used to make plutonium for an atomic bomb, as the Iranians expressed readiness to significantly restrict the reactor’s production capacity. The six powers, however, would still like Tehran to turn the reactor into a light-water facility, which cannot produce any weapons-grade material.

But the main point of contention, which will make or break an agreement, is the future enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil.

In the interim accord reached by the two sides in Geneva a few months ago, the six powers agreed to allow a limited program of enrichment, even under a permanent agreement. There remains, however, deep disagreement regarding the number of centrifuges that Iran would be allowed to operate. The American position is that Iran cannot be allowed to retain more than a few thousand centrifuges, while the Iranians want to keep all of the 19,000 centrifuges they already have, and even increase that number for a time.

Other disagreements revolve around the future of the underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow; the nature of the international inspection regime to be imposed on Iran; the stores of enriched uranium Iran already has, and the restrictions the six powers are demanding on Iranian production of long-range ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.