DAVID IGNATIUS: Closer, but still no Iran deal

DAVID IGNATIUS

DAVID IGNATIUS

As the Iran nuclear talks reach roughly the halfway point in the six-month timetable for negotiating a comprehensive agreement, both sides report slow, steady progress in closing gaps – but no deal yet.

A positive sign was a tentative plan floated this month to reduce the threat posed by Iran’s heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak. When I talked in Tehran with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in December, Arak appeared to be a deal-breaker. But negotiators seem to have found what they like to call a “win-win” solution.

The Arak compromise formula was outlined recently in the journal Arms Control Today. It proposes feeding the reactor with low-enriched fuel and operating it at lower power. The output would be more of the medical isotopes Iran says it needs and much less of the plutonium that the West fears could fuel a bomb.

Officials close to the talks note several interesting aspects of the first rounds of discussion, as negotiators push toward a tentative deadline of July 20:

• Russia has continued to play a constructive role, despite President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational behavior in Ukraine. U.S. officials believe that Putin doesn’t want a nuclear-armed Iran, and that he sees Russia’s role as an international power enhanced by its partnership in the P5-plus-1 coalition. The nuclear talks give Putin influence he would be reluctant to give up.

• Iran continues to mix its pragmatic stance in the negotiations with stridently anti-Western rhetoric, most recently in Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s March 21 message for the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz. Khamenei’s speech included one passage describing the Holocaust as “uncertain” and in another proclaiming that Iran had a “resistance economy” that could defy Western sanctions.

A sign of Iran’s pragmatism, amid its leader’s bombastic rhetoric, was Salehi’s comment that Iran had “no problem” with opening its military site at Parchin to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

• Negotiators on both sides appear to be taking seriously the six-month bargaining timetable set in the interim deal reached in Geneva last November that temporarily froze Iran’s nuclear program. The official negotiating clock started ticking Jan. 20.

U.S. and European officials initially believed a rollover of the interim freeze might be needed, adding another six months after July 20. But there now appears to be renewed focus on the deadline – partly because Iran wants relief from sanctions, and partly because November’s U.S. elections may yield a more conservative Congress that’s less supportive of an agreement.

Iranian and Western negotiators are now beginning to draft proposed language for a final, comprehensive pact. They’ll begin comparing those texts next month, officials expect.

The trickiest remaining problem is the limitation of enrichment by Iran to a level consistent with a civilian nuclear program.

The deeper question is whether Khamenei’s Iran is really ready for fundamental accommodation with the West. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace rightly cautions: “I don’t see how you can get a technical resolution to what’s essentially a political conflict.”

The details of an agreement are visible, but not yet the will in revolutionary Iran to compromise.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.