Phasing Out Sanctions Bedevil Iran Talks

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) headed into extra time with a major sticking point still the issue of how and when to phase out the economic sanctions against Iran, reports Gareth Porter for Middle East Eye.

By Gareth Porter

As the P5+1 and Iran agree to continue talks on a possible joint statement past a midnight deadline into Wednesday, the most contentious issue in Lausanne, Switzerland, still appears to be how and when sanctions on Iran will be lifted.

Virtually all the details of the negotiating positions of the two sides remain cloaked in secrecy. However, Middle East Eye has learned from an informed source in contact with negotiators in Lausanne that the core issue remaining to be resolved is whether the P5+1 will end some sanctions as soon as Iran has taken what it is calling “irreversible’ actions to implement the agreement.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

Iran has already made some significant concessions on the sanctions issue, the source revealed. Iran and the six-nation group, led by the U.S., have agreed that unilateral U.S. and European sanctions as UN Security Council sanctions that related to Iran’s nuclear program could be “suspended” rather than being lifted permanently at the beginning of the implementation of the agreement. The Iranian delegation is also not contesting that the UN Security Council resolutions that forbid assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile program and other military programs can stay in place, the source said.

But the remaining bone of contention is that the six-nation group has insisted on maintaining the entire legal system of sanctions in place, even after the sanctions have been suspended, until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reached the conclusion that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes a process that it admits could take many years.

U.S. and European officials have been telling journalists on background for months that maintaining the sanctions architecture in place is necessary to ensure not only that Iran implements the agreement fully but also that it has no ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons.

But Iran has pointed out to the U.S. and European negotiating teams that it is being asked to carry out curbs on its nuclear program that are effectively “irreversible,” and which should be reciprocated by the P5+1 with termination of some sanctions in each case, according to the source.

The source gave examples of Iranian concessions which Iran argues would be irreversible if implemented, including the redesign of the Arak heavy water reactor the elimination of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and the ratification of the Additional Protocol by the Iranian parliament. Iran is demanding that the agreement include language calling for the timely ending of sanctions in response to the actual implementation in each case.

Iran has agreed to redesign the Arak heavy water reactor, which the P5+1 had called a proliferation threat because of the roughly 10 kg of plutonium that it would produce annually.  The redesign that Iran has agreed to carry out would reduce the output of plutonium to 1 kg per year, according to the source in contact with the negotiators. Therefore, expect the P5+1 to go beyond merely suspending sanctions to reciprocate the implementation of the agreement.

A senior Iranian official told the International Crisis Group last June that the redesign of the Arak reactor would involve the replacement of calandria, the existing vessel that holds the reactor core, with a smaller one.  The officials said it would take years for Iran to reverse that change and restore the original rector.

Frank Von Hippel of Princeton University, a former assistant director for international security in the White House Office of Science and Technology, confirmed in an interview with MEE that the agreed plan for redesigning the Arak Reactor does indeed involve the replacement of the calandria and is therefore, in practical term, “irreversible.”

Von Hippel also said the Iranian agreement to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to a very low level, on top of the reduction in the number of centrifuges to roughly two-thirds of the present operational level, would take about three years to reverse.

Iranian negotiators are not that concerned about the P5+1 refusal to lift sanctions until Iran’s provides full information on the “Possible Military Dimensions,” according to the source. “The PMD issue is not a problem,” the source said, because Iran is prepared to give the agency all the access it needs as part of the agreement.

The much more serious Iranian concern is the six nation group’s insistence that the IAEA must also verify the peaceful nature of the program, as though the implementation of the agreement were not sufficient evidence.  Iranian negotiators have pointed out to Western diplomats that the IAEA could take up to 15 years to arrive at a final judgment, as it did in the case of South Africa, the source said.

A senior Iranian official told the International Crisis Group last November that IAEA officials, responding to Iran’s question about the time required, had refused to rule out the possibility that it would take more than ten years to complete its assessment of Iran’s case.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story originally appeared at Middle East Eye.]

3 comments for “Phasing Out Sanctions Bedevil Iran Talks

  1. David Peterson
    April 1, 2015 at 09:42

    Friends: With respect to nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programs, I’ve learned four lessons over the years:

    (1) Virtually every country of some minimum size and wealth has a nuclear energy program.

    (2) Virtually every country with a nuclear energy program has explored the military dimensions (non-peaceful purposes) of nuclear energy.

    (3) Virtually every country that has explored the military dimensions (non-peaceful purposes) of nuclear energy is a potential “breakout” country, if the decision to build nuclear weapons is made (intent).

    (4) The only countries that have nuclear energy programs and that ever run afoul of the so-called “international community” via unilateral (the United States) and/or multilateral actions (through the IAEA and Security Council) are those that the United States regards as Official Enemies.

  2. Peter Loeb
    April 1, 2015 at 06:20


    “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” (Shakespearer, MACBETH).

    I have never believed that the West and the US in particular was ever prepared to lift any
    sanctions. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

    Neither Iran nor the West could ever accept a significant reduction of sanctions on Iran and
    there has never been a consideration of what reduction would be acceptable to the Irannian
    people and its leaders. (See recommendations in the UN General Assembly, Disarmament
    Committee, passed with opposition of US and Israel.)

    There has never been any consideration of eliminating Israel’s “capacity” to produce nuclear
    weapons nor its ability to produce drones and other Weapons of Mass Destruction. Israel
    is the Mideast’s primary nuclear power and its major threat to peace.

    One wonders what will transpire in Tehran this spring when there are to be high-level talks
    with Russia and China.

    ——Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. elmerfudzie
    April 1, 2015 at 01:38

    Something tells me that, this so called Iran “deal” in fact signals the likelihood of a full blown east-west military confrontation in the Ukraine. We can’t successfully fight on one front, let alone two, three or is it up to four now?. Permit me to guess, the Mullahs have agreed to use the US dollar, dump the Iranian Bourse exchange idea and to keep stirring up trouble in Syria, Iraq and perhaps in Saudi Arabia. In short, they’ve agreed to ‘scramble the eggs’ and preserve chaos in the middle east. It was never about Iranian commercial nuclear power; there are several accurate weapon systems that Israel could have used, at any time, to first poke a hole in that heavily reinforced concrete dome at Buchehr, followed by a mini nuke tipped missile that would detonate inside, thus melting the core. This strategy would have contained most of the radioactivity inside the disabled vessel without extensive exposure to the heavily populated areas nearby. Despite the distribution of dozens of nuclear research centers throughout Iran, their uranium/plutonium program would have been effectively dismantled for many years to come. So hang on folks, we’re in for a real tough ride and ANOTHER confrontation….

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