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Nuclear deal elusive in Iran

by JOHN HEILPRIN Associated Press on November 09, 2013 10:09 AM

GENEVA — Iran and six world powers remain split on terms of a nuclear deal because Tehran is resisting demands that it suspends work on a plutonium-producing reactor and downgrade its stockpile of higher-enriched uranium to a level that cannot quickly be turned into the core of an atomic bomb, France’s foreign minister said today.

Laurent Fabius’ remarks to France-Inter radio were the first to provide some specifics on the obstacles at the Geneva talks, now in their third day. He spoke by telephone from Geneva, where he, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and counterparts from Britain, and Germany negotiating with Iran consulted on how to resolve the obstacles at the talks.

Fabius mentioned differences over Iran’s Arak reactor southeast of Tehran, which could produce enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons a year once it goes online. He also said there was disagreement over efforts to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment to levels that would require substantial further enriching before they could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.

The six powers — the negotiators also include the EU and China — are considering a gradual rollback of sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. In exchange, they demand initial curbs on Iran’s nuclear program, including a cap on uranium enrichment to a level that cannot be turned quickly to weapons use.

Adding to the complexities at the negotiations were apparent divisions among the six powers on the shape of any deal.

A Western diplomat who is in Geneva for the talks told The Associated Press that most of the six powers were agreed on their demands but the French were holding out for tougher conditions on the Iranians. He gave no specifics and demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the diplomatic maneuvering among the six.

Iran, which denies any interest in such weapons, currently runs more than 10,000 centrifuges that have created tons of fuel-grade material that can be further enriched to arm nuclear warheads.

It also has nearly 440 pounds of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be turned into weapons much more quickly. Experts say 550 pounds of that 20 percent-enriched uranium are needed to produce a single warhead.

Iran says it expects Arak, the plutonium-producing reactor, to be completed and go online sometime next year. It would need additional facilities to reprocess the plutonium into weapons-grade material and the U.N’s nuclear agency monitoring Iran’s atomic activities says it has seen no evidence of such a project.

Fabius said Iran is opposed to suspending work on Arak while nuclear negotiations go on in attempt to reach a first-stage agreement and then a comprehensive final deal limiting Tehran’s atomic work. ‘He said suspension was absolutely necessary

Iran is also being asked to blend down “a great part of this stock at 20 percent, to 5 percent,” Fabius said. Uranium enriched to 5 percent is considered reactor fuel grade and upgrading it to weapons-level takes much longer than for 20 percent enriched uranium. He also suggested that the six powers were looking for an Iranian commitment to cap future enrichment at 5 percent.

“We are hoping for a deal, but for the moment there are still issues that have not been resolved,” Fabius said.

Any agreement would be a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks, but would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran’s potential ability to produce nuclear arms, with no guarantee of ultimate success.

Kerry and his European counterparts arrived in Geneva on Friday with the talks at a critical stage following a full day of negotiations Thursday and said some obstacles remained in the way of any agreement offering sanctions reductions for nuclear concessions.

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