New York Times: As Iran and six world powers meet this week in Vienna to begin drafting language to resolve their nuclear standoff, negotiators say they are finally confronting a crucial sticking point to a permanent agreement — the size and shape of the nuclear fuel production capability that Iran will be permitted to retain.
The New York Times
By David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger
WASHINGTON — As Iran and six world powers meet this week in Vienna to begin drafting language to resolve their nuclear standoff, negotiators say they are finally confronting a crucial sticking point to a permanent agreement — the size and shape of the nuclear fuel production capability that Iran will be permitted to retain.
It is a subject that, at least in public, the Obama administration steps around, acutely aware that Israel and members of Congress who are highly suspicious of the negotiations will say that Iran must be kept years from being able to develop a weapon, and that opponents of the deal in Tehran will argue that no restraints at all should be imposed.
Both the Iranians and the Western powers have said their talks so far have been productive, with little of the drama, the ultimatums and the entrenched positions that have marked previous efforts. But until now, there has been no formal discussion of how much nuclear infrastructure the United States and its allies would demand that Iran dismantle in return for the gradual easing of sanctions. “This is the sticker-shock conversation, and we haven’t had it yet,” one senior administration official said.
In a visit to Israel last week, the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, and the chief American negotiator, Wendy Sherman, made clear that the Iranians would almost certainly retain some enrichment capability, though American officials said they never discussed specific numbers. Israeli officials say they expect the figure to be 2,000 to 5,000 centrifuges. American officials say their goal is to keep Iran more than a year away from the ability to produce fuel usable in a single nuclear weapon, but they become vague about how much beyond one year. It would take even longer to fabricate that into a deliverable weapon.
In a recent speech, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran was careful to describe himself as open to more inspections, but not to dismantling the country’s nuclear infrastructure. “We have nothing to put on the table and offer to them but transparency,” he told his country’s Atomic Energy Organization, according to accounts from Iranian news organizations. “That’s it. Our nuclear technology is not up for negotiation.”
The Iranians are talking about expanding their current cache, to build upward of 50,000 centrifuges, the tall, silvery machines that spin at supersonic speeds, enriching uranium at every turn. Iran currently has 19,000 installed, including about 8,000 that are not yet running. If Iran ever reached its goal — which is highly unlikely in the next few years, especially with a new generation of centrifuges that produce fuel much more quickly — American experts say Iran would be able to produce weapons-grade material in weeks.
“An enrichment capacity that large — indeed, an enrichment capacity greater than a few thousand first-generation centrifuges — would give Iran an unacceptably rapid breakout capability,” Robert Einhorn, who until last year was a key member of the Iran negotiating team for the State Department, wrote in The National Interest last week. If that was more than just a negotiating position, he wrote, “it is a showstopper, and Iran must know that.”
“Breakout capability” — a phrase that means the ability to quickly produce a bomb — depends on many factors beyond the number of centrifuges left spinning in Iran. The size of Iran’s inventory of nuclear fuel, the frequency and breadth of nuclear inspections, and the ability to detect secret facilities (two have been discovered in the past decade) factor into the equation.
As Ms. Rice and Ms. Sherman have told American lawmakers and outside experts, the key is to leave Iran with a face-saving nuclear infrastructure that would allow its clerics and the nation’s Revolutionary Guards commanders the ability to argue that they have not given up the right to produce nuclear fuel, but with a small enough capability that the White House can overcome Congressional objections.
Allies of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, still angry that the Obama administration kept them in the dark about the secret negotiations with Iran that led to the current round of talks, publicly set an enormously high bar that they knew American negotiators could not clear. “There are two models here: Libya and North Korea,” said Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, in an interview on Monday. “In Libya all the elements of the nuclear program were handed over to the Americans and inspectors” and left the country, he said. “In North Korea equipment was dismantled, then built again,” he said, “and then came their nuclear tests.”
But Mr. Steinitz acknowledged that the United States and its allies had made what he termed “reasonable progress” in getting the Iranians to agree, at least in principle, to modifying a heavy-water reactor near the town of Arak that could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, another path to a bomb. The head of Iran’s atomic organization, Ali Akhbar Salehi, has said his agency is willing to modify plans for Arak to reduce output significantly, indicating some negotiating space. But there has been almost no progress on Iran’s missile capability; on Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Western demands for limits on missiles “stupid and idiotic.”
Even as the negotiators debate the size and scope of the Iranian nuclear program, a new study of Iran’s emerging use of cyberweapons concludes that the country is beginning to follow China’s model of using computer malware to conduct espionage against American defense contractors and the government.
But the attacks from “patriotic hackers” whose exact links to the Iranian government and its Revolutionary Guards remain murky, appeared to slow for a time at the end of 2013, as the negotiations with the United States and Europe began to gain some traction, according to the study by FireEye, a Silicon Valley security firm. The findings were first reported by Reuters, and a copy of the study was obtained by The New York Times.
The study focuses on what Iranian hackers call the Ajax Security Team, which it says is “conducting multiple cyberespionage operations against companies in the defense industrial base within the United States” and is targeting Iranians trying to evade censorship at home.
Iranian officials have made clear that they view the cyber and nuclear issues as closely related, especially after Iran suffered a debilitating attack, known popularly as Stuxnet or by its code name, Olympic Games, which was designed by the United States and Israel.
The cyberattacks led Iran to announce it was assembling a “cyber corps.” While their techniques do not compare to those of the Chinese or the Russians, Iranian hackers were determined to have been behind a 2012 attack on Saudi Aramco, the oil producer. Iran was also believed to have been responsible for an attack on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet that did little damage, but was considered a bold challenge.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels.