UPDATE 2100 GMT: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry have held another round of nuclear talks, this time in Montreux in Switzerland.
Zarif and Kerry were joined by their technical advisors, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar Salehi and US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and by the lead Iranian and American nuclear negotiators.
An eye-catching story on Sunday in an Israeli newspaper raises an interesting prospect: Iran’s Supreme Leader could be ready to give way to US-led demands in nuclear talks.
Unnamed “Western diplomats” gave Haaretz extensive details of the proposed comprehensive deal between Iran and the 5+1 Powers, after weeks of discussions in Munich and Geneva.
The central feature of the deal is a concession by Iran both on the number of its nuclear centrifuges and on the amount of low-enriched uranium the Islamic Republic will retain inside its borders.
According to the Western diplomats, Iran has responded to the 5+1’s initiatives with the counter-proposal of 6,000 centrifuges — a reduction on the 10,000 that it is currently operating — over the next 10 years, with an increase to about 10,000 in the following five years.
According to the report, Iran would ship out all its 20% enriched uranium for conversion into fuel plates. It would also hand over almost all of its 5% stock to Russia, keeping only a “symbolic” 300-350 kilograms.
The Iranians are also conceding to the 5+1 Powers over the duration of an agreement, accepting a 15-year deal rather than the shorter period that they wanted.
If true, the Iranian proposals are a substantial retreat from the public line of the Supreme Leader. He has maintained that Iran will be able to expand its nuclear program by 2021, producing 20 times the current output of the centrifuges. Iranian officials have privately said that they do not accept that level of expansion, but had still been seeking an increased capacity in the talks.
To achieve that expansion, Iran will need not only to retain its present level of centrifuges, rather than reducing them by about 40%, but also to introduce advanced IR-2 and IR-4 centrifuges to replace the 40-year-old IR-1 model. While uranium could be shipped outside the country — a proposal which goes back to talks in 2009 — any duration of an agreement beyond six years could maintain restrictions on the Supreme Leader’s declared quest for self-sufficiency in a civil nuclear program.
Even if the reports of the changed terms are true — and the Supreme Leader did speak last month of compromises in the talks — barriers still remain to an agreement by the deadline of July 1.
Iran continues to insist that the lifting of major US-led sanctions, including on its banking and oil sectors, within months of a deal. So far, the US and its allies are holding out against that timetable.
Putting the pieces together offers this possible picture. Facing economic crisis, the Supreme Leader is willing to sip from a “cup of poison” — the term used by Ayatollah Khomeini when he bowed to the terms of the ceasefire in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War — and accept the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear output. However, that poison must have the anecdote of sanctions relief to offer some assistance to the battered Iranian economy.