On Thursday, negotiators from the United States, Iran and five other world powers begin the final stretch of negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear agreement. A deal is within reach. But time is short.
With fewer than three months before the Nov. 24 deadline for an agreement, defining the size and scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program remains the most significant gap. To bridge it, negotiators must move away from extreme positions toward more realistic ones.
There are several ways to square the circle and find a formula that meets the basic requirements of all parties. For Iran, the goal is a meaningful uranium-enrichment program. For the five permanent member of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — plus Germany, or P5+1,the goal is to limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and to monitor its activities to ensure that the time it would take Tehran to amass enough weapons-grade nuclear material to build a bomb is extended.
Under the interim agreement reached last November, the parties agreed that Tehran could maintain an enrichment program based on its “practical needs.” Both sides base their positions on technical assessments of Iran’s needs yet strongly disagree on the amount of enriched uranium required to meet them. The problem here is essentially political.
Iran believes its practical needs include future fuel needs for nuclear reactors now in the planning stage. Russia supplies fuel for Iran’s sole operating nuclear power plant, Bushehr, and is under contract to do so through 2021. Tehran wants to build up its domestic capacity and reduce its reliance on the international market for enriched uranium fuel, a concern not unwarranted by Iran’s past experiences.