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Crucial Questions Remain as Iran Nuclear Talks Approach Deadline

VIENNA — Iran’s top nuclear negotiator was heading back to Tehran on Sunday to consult with his nation’s top leadership, as negotiators remained divided over how to limit and monitor Tehran’s nuclear program and even on how to interpret the preliminary agreement they reached two months ago.

With all sides now acknowledging the talks would need to continue beyond what was once considered the absolute deadline for a final deal, on Tuesday, officials from several nations said some of the politically difficult questions — on everything from inspections to how fast Iran could expand its nuclear infrastructure in the waning years of an accord — are still vexing, just as they were when the 18-month negotiating odyssey began.

For Secretary of State John Kerry, for whom an Iran deal would be the crowning achievement of his time in office, how the talks proceed this week will determine whether he can make a convincing argument to skeptics in Congress that he has negotiated an airtight freeze on the program for at least a decade, and crippled Iran’s capability to race for a bomb for years thereafter.

For Mr. Kerry’s counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the obstacles to achieving his No. 1 goal — getting the crippling sanctions on Iran lifted — are a tricky mix of both substance and perception.

Graphic | A Simple Guide to the Nuclear Negotiations With Iran A guide to help you navigate the talks between Western powers and Tehran.

His sudden flight back to Iran — Mr. Kerry was informed about the trip on Saturday — may reflect his own delicate balancing act: He cannot appear to contradict the latest “red lines” laid out by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And he must emerge from the talks able to make a convincing case that his concessions do not add up to what the ayatollah recently described as a “totalitarian agreement” sought by the Americans.

“There are red lines which we cannot cross and some very difficult decisions,” said Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, who joined the talks here on Sunday.

“There are a number of different areas where we still have major differences of interpretation in detailing what was agreed at Lausanne,” he added, referring to the location of the last talks in April.

In the ancient Coburg Palace, where the negotiations are taking place, the search for leverage in these talks has never been more intense.

Interactive Feature | Key Developments on Iran Nuclear Deal An outline of major developments since the framework agreement in April that could influence the final round of talks before finalizing a deal by June 30.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech on Tuesday, defining what kind of nuclear research Iran must be able to conduct and what constitutes off-limits zones for international inspectors, was either a tactical move to bolster his negotiating team or a warning to them that he is prepared to kill the deal they recently seemed on the cusp of signing.

“They need us,” Ayatollah Khamenei said last week about the Obama administration, suggesting that Iran’s clerics held the keys to the president’s foreign policy legacy. Left unsaid was how much the Iranians need the West — for trade, for finance, for oil markets and for legitimacy.

Depending on one’s point of view, Mr. Kerry was either bolstered or hemmed in by a bipartisan letter written by some of the United States’ top nuclear and Mideast experts, including five of President Obama’s former senior advisers on Iran, that described a series of bare-minimum requirements for them to support an accord.

If Mr. Kerry returns with an accord that does not meet the letter’s standards, the fight in Congress will be even more intense. If he can meet their approval, it may help Mr. Obama avoid a congressional rejection of the deal — a vote the president could probably surmount with a veto, but that could diminish what he hopes will be a historic turning point with an adversary of 35 years.

For those keeping score at home, here is a summary of the most contentious issues at play.

‘Breakout,’ During and After an Accord

The most striking feature of the agreement as described in April is that Iran would be limited to a relatively small amount of nuclear material — about 660 pounds, not enough to make a bomb. For 10 years, Iran would be limited to 5,060 aging, low-capacity centrifuges in operation that are capable of making nuclear fuel.

The Obama administration argues that these limits would extend the time that Iran would need to enrich that fuel to the purity needed to produce a bomb — called a “breakout time” — to a year. (The breakout time is currently estimated to be about two months.)

But after the first decade, these restrictions are to be relaxed. Mr. Obama acknowledged in an April interview with National Public Radio that the breakout time could go “almost down to zero” during the final few years of a 15-year accord, depending on how quickly Iran could master the complexities of the more advanced centrifuges more than a decade from now, and what limits, if any, are placed on how they could be deployed.

The ayatollah’s argument is that after the accord expires, Iran should be free to pursue “industrial scale” production of uranium. But some experts fear that this would put Iran in a far better position than today to make a dash for a bomb. Just the prospect of that scenario could drive Saudi Arabia to seek its own weapon.

So Mr. Kerry and his negotiating partner, Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, must work out an understanding with Iran on how fast it could expand its enrichment activity during years 11 to 15 of an agreement. Under an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency called the “Additional Protocol,” Tehran would also have to commit to notifying the world long in advance about any plans to expand its nuclear capability after the first 10 years of an accord. But those “notifications” would not bind Iran to limit the scope of its work.

Inspecting Everywhere, Military Sites Included

International inspectors once focused on “declared facilities,” the places a country voluntarily tells them are related to a nuclear program. But starting 25 years ago, it became clear that approach was a failure. After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, inspectors discovered that Saddam Hussein had made far more progress toward a nuclear weapon than they realized, which was followed by big misses on nuclear programs in South Africa, North Korea and Syria.

The result was the passage of the “Additional Protocol,” which allows inspectors to ask to see any site they reasonably suspect could have a nuclear use — on fairly short notice, with no exception for military sites. Iran briefly abided by the protocol more than a decade ago, and it would re-implement it as part of the new accord.

But Ayatollah Khamenei has drawn the line at military sites, where some of Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work has been pursued. That would be a deal killer for the United States and its European allies, officials say.

Other inspection issues that remain open include how to establish and monitor a “supply channel” where all nuclear-related technology and imports would flow.

Resolving History

For nearly a decade the inspectors, based in Vienna, have been trying to gain access to the scientists and documents behind what they suspect is a vast bomb-design program. Their evidence largely comes from American, Israeli, British and German intelligence agencies, and documents smuggled out of the country by at least one Iranian scientist.

The documents detail work on firing systems, the “explosive lenses” used to detonate nuclear fuel, modeling work on chain reactions and work on a “re-entry vehicle” that could protect a warhead on its way to a target. For years Iran has resisted efforts to resolve those questions, calling the documents “fabrications” and refusing interviews with the scientists, whom, they say, would soon be assassinated, as several have been in recent years.

Mr. Kerry, in a statement that officials have been qualifying ever since, said earlier this month that “we’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time,” as long as future activity was stopped. Recently he called Mr. Zarif to say an accounting would be needed.

Experts said it was important to understand how far Iran got in its design work — which is believed to have been largely shuttered in 2003 — because that information was critical to estimating how long it would take Iran to design a weapon. Keeping track of the scientists and their work for the next decade is also key. Finally, if Iran is not compelled to answer the inspectors, it sets a precedent for other countries, who may also want to resist the I.A.E.A.’s investigations.

Timing the Lifting of Economic Sanctions

Iranian officials have long demanded that the most damaging sanctions — on oil sales and international financial transactions — be lifted very early in an accord, perhaps in a matter of several weeks.

Last week Ayatollah Khamenei rejected the idea that Iran would have to complete its obligations before the sanctions were suspended by the United States, Europe and the United Nations. But he also suggested there was a way to phase out the sanctions.

American officials have estimated that it could take six months to a year for Iran to carry out the key steps: slashing the number of centrifuges it operates, storing the rest, reducing its fuel stockpile, removing the key components of its heavy water reactor and providing access to scientists and documents.

An equally important issue concerns the procedures for reimposing sanctions should Iran violate an agreement, what experts have called “snap back” provisions.

In the case of United Nations sanctions, the United States wants to avoid an arrangement in which Russia or China could use a Security Council veto to block the re-establishment of sanctions. So negotiators have been discussing an arrangement in which the need to “snap back” sanctions would be determined by a committee, which could include the United States, its negotiating partners, Iran and the European Union.

The last days of a negotiation are often the hardest. Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former adviser on weapons of mass destruction who is president of a group called United Against a Nuclear Iran, offered some advice.

“Don’t make any more concessions to get a deal in early July,” he said. “They need a deal more than we do.”

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(via NY Times)