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What parameters and ‘thorny issues’ are guiding nuclear talks with Iran?

October 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While two-day talks in Geneva over Iran's nuclear program entered "new territory" of negotiations and heralded a change in tone and pragmatism, no major breakthroughs have been made. What issues may prove to be major sticking points? Ray Suarez talks to Michael Gordon of The New York Times.
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RAY SUAREZ:  Joining me now is Michael Gordon, who has been covering the Geneva talks for The New York Times. 

And, Michael, one of the American delegation who asked not to be named said, “I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before.”

Are we in new territory now? 

MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times:  Well, I think it is fair to say that the United States and Iran are in new territory and that the tone of the discussions between the two sides is very different. 

Qualitatively, they’re talking about issues in a technical way, in a pragmatic way that they haven’t before.  But they also failed to announce any breakthrough or even any short-term measures to build trust.  So, nobody is claiming they have narrowed major differences here. 

RAY SUAREZ:  Just a short time ago, we heard from Javad Zarif.  And it sounded like he was pretty much sticking to Iran’s guns, not really modifying the country’s previously held positions. 

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During this meeting, has Iran stated that it’s ready to modify its program in some way to meet international demands? 

MICHAEL GORDON:  Well, Iran’s position is that it has the right to enrich uranium, a point that the American officials here didn’t concede, and that it wants that right acknowledged, and that it wants it acknowledged up front. 

It appears willing to accept some constraints, particularly on its right to enrich uranium up to 20 percent.  But a big problem is that over the past year, the Iranian program has grown.  They now have advanced centrifuges to produce enriched uranium.  They’re building a plant that can produce plutonium.  So the sort of measures that Iran has talked about in the past and would seem to be on the table here may no longer be sufficient to contain the program even in the short-term. 

And one American goal has been to freeze the program while talks proceed.  And even that hasn’t — wasn’t achieved at these talks, although they’re planning, as you know, to meet again in just three weeks. 

RAY SUAREZ:  From the very beginning of this confrontation, Iran has insisted it is not seeking the means to make a nuclear weapon, that it is enriching radioactive materials in order to have electric power plants and medical uses. 

The rest of the world has been saying, if you need those things, we will get them for you and don’t want you to enrich.  Has Iran explained why it must retain the ability to enrich to the levels that you have been talking about? 

MICHAEL GORDON:  Well, Iranian officials have made a number of arguments.

Sometimes, they say they have invested so much in these facilities, they can’t just write off that investment.  Sometimes, they say it’s a matter of national pride.  Basically, they say they have the right.  They claim they have a legal right to enrich under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a point that — on which the Americans haven’t conceded, at least in these talks, although they have sometimes acknowledged it in the past. 

You know, the point is, if there’s going to be a compromise, it seems very likely that Iraq — Iran will have to retain the right to enrich to some degree, but that it will have to be done under very tight monitoring and very close scrutiny. 

And so, if there is to be a compromise, that would appear to be an element of it.  But will Iran agree to the rather intrusive monitoring that would be required?  Would they limit the number of centrifuges so they don’t have a breakout capability, that is, the ability to sprint to a nuclear weapon if they were to throw the inspectors out and refuse to be subject to monitoring anymore? 

I mean, those are some of the — the really very thorny issues that the two sides have to tackle.  And there’s a sense on both sides that time is running out.  It’s running out on the Iranian side because of the economic pressures.  And it’s running out on the American side and the West side because of advances in Iran’s nuclear program. 

RAY SUAREZ:  Well, both the Obama administration and other members of the U.N. permanent five have openly expressed encouragement after this latest round in Geneva. 

One power that’s had a lot to say about the Iranian program and has the United States’ ear is Israel.  Has Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear to the United States where he stands on these meetings and on Iranian entreaties? 

MICHAEL GORDON:  Yes.  I think the Israelis have made it abundantly clear.  The Israeli prime minister made this point at the United Nations, and the Israelis said today that he is going to meet today with Secretary of State John Kerry next week in Rome and make the point again. 

From the Israeli perspective, they don’t want Iran to have any enrichment capability whatsoever.  What’s also interesting is another state in that region that is very concerned about this direction in the talks is Saudi Arabia, which, of course, is an adversary really of Iran’s, Arab and Persian kind of opposition. 

And so the Saudi position and the Israeli position are actually very close.  That said, I think White House really wants to avoid making good on its threat to use military force as a last resort to disable the Iranian nuclear program.  And I think both sides are looking for a way out.  And if there is to be an agreement, I think it would be one that leaves Iran with some nuclear program and some potential capacity to make nuclear weapons in the future, but not a breakout capability, not one that they could exercise in sort of a mad dash for a bomb.

And so I think that’s really the parameters that are likely to guide the talks over the next several months. 

RAY SUAREZ:  Michael Gordon of The New York Times in Geneva.

They will be back at the table in November. 

Thanks a lot.