Iran nuclear talks hit an obstacle over enrichment, officials say

An agreement between Iran and six world powers appeared in jeopardy after the chief of over Tehran's nuclear programme said it was building a new generation of centrifuges

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 5:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 December, 2013, 5:29pm

Iran is taking steps to improve its ability to speed up uranium enrichment in a development that could delay implementation of a nuclear deal with six world powers because Tehran’s actions are opposed by the United States and its allies.

Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said late on Thursday that his country is building a new generation of centrifuges for uranium enrichment but they need further tests before they can be mass produced. His comments appeared aimed at countering criticism from Iranian hardliners by showing their country’s nuclear programme is moving ahead and has not been halted by the accord.

But two officials familiar with Iran’s nuclear activities said Tehran has gone even further by interpreting a provision of the interim Geneva nuclear deal in a way rejected by many, if not all, of the six powers that sealed the deal with Iran.

They told reporters on Friday that Iranian technical experts told counterparts from the six powers last week that some of the cutting-edge machines have been installed at a research tract of one of Iran’s enriching sites. They gave no numbers.

Iran argued that it had a right to increase its enrichment capabilities in such a manner under the research and development provisions of the November 24 Geneva accord, said the officials, who represent countries that are members of the Vienna-based UN nuclear agency monitoring Tehran’s atomic activities. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to discuss the closed meetings.

Iran’s approach is being hotly disputed by the United States and other representatives of the six powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – said the officials. They said the six have argued that installing any centrifuge that increases overall numbers, particularly a new model, violates Tehran’s commitment to freeze the amount and type of enriching machines at November 24 levels.

In commitments under the Geneva accord, Iran agreed to freeze the number of centrifuges enriching uranium for six months and only to produce models now installed or in operation, so it can exchange them piece by piece for any damaged ones. At the same time, the interim deal allows Iran to continue centrifuge research and development.

The disagreement contributed to the decision to adjourn the talks in Geneva last Sunday, the officials said.

On Friday night, no one was answering telephone calls for comment at Iran’s mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear organisation. Calls to officials in Tehran were not immediately returned on Friday.

Two technical meetings about Iran’s nuclear programme since the November agreement have dragged on for several days, but a session planned in Geneva on Monday is scheduled to last only a day. That time scale suggests both sides are anticipating the need to return to their capitals for more consultation on the issue.

The development regarding uranium enrichment reflects the difficulties expected in implementing the November 24 deal as the two sides argue over interpretations of the document outlining both Iran’s obligations and moves by the international community to ease economic sanctions in return for Tehran’s nuclear concessions.

Such differences could delay the deal past its envisaged January start and strengthen both hardliners in Tehran and congressional sceptics in Washington who argue that the accord doesn’t work and gives Iran too much for too little in return.

In Geneva, Iran also agreed to limit its uranium enrichment to 5 per cent and neutralise its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium.

Depending on its grade, enriched uranium can be used for either reactor fuel or – at levels above 90 per cent – for the fissile core of a nuclear warhead.

Iran insists it has no interest in nuclear weapons. But the United States and its allies are sceptical. Limiting enrichment with machines that spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of fissile isotopes is one of the core aims of the six-month interim deal meant to prepare ground for a permanent accord.

Asked for comment on the centrifuge issue, US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Geneva plan “makes very clear what Iran is and isn’t allowed to do,” adding Washington is ready to “vigilantly ensure” that the agreement is being implemented.

Despite the nuclear diplomatic manoeuvring, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Friday for direct talks with the United States separate from the six-power negotiations. That appeared to signal top-level endorsement of the policies of President Hassan Rouhani in trying to reduce tensions with Washington.