Wall Street Journal: Nuclear negotiations between Iran and six major powers hit a fresh hurdle this week when the country’s Supreme Leader said Iran needs significantly greater enrichment capacity. Khamenei’s comment in a speech Monday to senior level technocrats and military personnel came as negotiators in Vienna struggle to complete a final nuclear agreement by the July 20 deadline.
The Wall Street Journal
By Laurence Norman and Farnaz Fassihi
Nuclear negotiations between Iran and six major powers hit a fresh hurdle this week when the country’s Supreme Leader said Iran needs significantly greater enrichment capacity.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comment in a speech Monday to senior level technocrats and military personnel came as negotiators in Vienna struggle to complete a final nuclear agreement by the July 20 deadline. Western diplomats have said progress in the talks has been very slow.
The negotiations aim to win commitments from Iran to limit its future nuclear program in exchange for a gradual end to international sanctions. Western officials have said an Iranian insistence on a bigger program would be a deal-breaker.
A U.S. official said on Tuesday that negotiators for the six powers—China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.—focus on what Iran’s diplomats say at the negotiating table.
But the comments by Mr. Khamenei, considered the final arbiter of Iran’s nuclear policy, could leave the Iranians in Vienna with less room to maneuver.
Mr. Khamenei has often commented on the negotiations in broad terms, signaling that he supports them even though he wasn’t optimistic about their success. It has never been clear, however, whether he has set a red line for his negotiating team to stop them from accepting significant reductions in Iran’s nuclear program. Monday’s remarks were his most specific so far on that issue.
According to a transcript of his speech on his official website, Mr. Khamenei said the six powers were demanding Iran accept an enrichment limit of 10,000 separative work units, or SWU, a number they have never publicly cited. One SWU roughly equals the amount of enrichment one basic centrifuge carries out in a year.
“Their goal on the subject of enrichment capacity is to convince Iran to enrich 10,000 SWU. They first started off with 500 and 1,000 SWU,” he said. “Officials tell me that the country’s definite need is 190,000 SWU.”
While Mr. Khamenei’s speech was widely quoted in Iranian media, his comments about the 190,000 SWUs weren’t, suggesting he wasn’t out to broadly signal a major new policy shift.
Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate at Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the 190,000 SWU figure “is perhaps 10 times more than the U.S. would be willing to countenance in the next decade. That is certainly not a bridgeable gap in the next two weeks, or even in the next six months.”
Mr. Khamenei may have been “preparing the terrain” for the possibility that the talks fail, said Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But it is a risky move because he is also boxing in the negotiators and making it more difficult for them to accept lower numbers,” she added.
A number of Western experts have said that to assure the international community that Iran won’t achieve a breakout capability allowing it to race out and suddenly produce enough nuclear fuel for an atomic bomb, Iran must accept a limit of between 2,000 and 6,000 old-generation centrifuges.
Iran currently has some 19,000 centrifuges, of which around 10,000 are in operation. Some 1,000 of those centrifuges are more advanced machines with a significantly higher enrichment capacity.
Though Western officials haven’t publicly set a ceiling, a senior administration official said last week that under a final agreement Tehran would have to accept a program that was “very limited” and “a fraction” of Iran’s current capabilities.
Iran denies it has ever sought to develop nuclear weapons, saying it needs nuclear capabilities for energy and medical isotopes.
Over the past week, Washington has sought to raise the heat on Iran in the talks, with Secretary of State John Kerry writing on July 2 that “now” was the time for Iran to choose whether to keep its nuclear options open or to seek a diplomatic route that would see sanctions ended.
Mr. Kerry warned that the U.S. may not accept extending the talks beyond the July 20 target date if real progress wasn’t made by that deadline.
“What matters is what happens inside the negotiating room, and we are still looking for Iran to make the choices it must to ensure the international community that its program is for entirely peaceful purposes and cannot be used for a nuclear weapon,” a senior U.S. administration said Tuesday in response to Mr. Khamenei’s remarks.
On Tuesday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who is Tehran’s point man in the negotiations, said the Supreme Leader is Iran’s “biggest support” and vowed that the team won’t “back down” on any of Iran’s nuclear rights.