U.S. nuclear negotiator suggests Iran deal could be close at hand
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U.S. nuclear negotiator suggests Iran deal could be close at hand

Wendy Sherman, the top U.S. negotiator in the world powers' nuclear talks with Iran, says the two sides have "made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. (Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Geneva)

Wendy Sherman, the top U.S. negotiator in the world powers’ nuclear talks with Iran, says the two sides have “made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. (Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Geneva)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Is the Obama administration preparing the ground for an Iran nuclear deal — one in which both sides can claim victory?

Wendy Sherman, the top U.S. negotiator, in an unusually detailed and optimistic speech on Oct. 23, for the first time suggested that the pieces of a deal were in place and all that was needed was Iranian willingness to wrap it up by the Nov. 24 deadline.

“I can tell you that all the components of a plan that should be acceptable to both sides are on the table,” Sherman, an undersecretary of state, said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies symposium here on the talks. “We have made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. We have cleared up misunderstandings and held exhaustive discussions on every element of a possible text.”

The United States and other major powers have said that a deal would have to include a tough inspections regime, disabling a plutonium reactor at the Arak nuclear facility and a sharp reduction in Iran’s enrichment capability. Sherman named the capability condition as the sticking point of “this painstaking and difficult negotiation.”

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank that has advised the Pentagon, said that Sherman was referring to a “red line” laid down over the summer by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, when he said Iran would not dismantle any of its more than 19,000 centrifuges. Of those centrifuges, more than 9,000 are believed to be operational.

The United States reportedly wants that reduced to 4,500 centrifuges, which it believes will keep Iran from reaching weapons breakout ability.

“I’m not sure Iran is going to stick with that maximalist position,” said Nader, who said that in the wake of Sherman’s speech, he would not rule out a deal by Nov. 24.

Mark Dubowitz, the director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank who has helped shape congressional sanctions on Iran and been a skeptic of the talks, said there could be creative workarounds in which both sides could claim victory on the centrifuges issue, although he characterized them as flawed.

For instance, Dubowitz said, the pipes connecting the majority of the centrifuges could be removed and placed under supervision. Under this plan, the Iranians could claim that all 19,000 centrifuges remained in place, while the major powers would be able to say that only a limited number are operational. Iran could reverse this formula by replacing the pipes.

“I think President Obama clearly wants a deal, and has instructed the negotiators to get a deal, and has floated a number of creative proposals to accommodate the supreme leader’s red lines,” Dubowitz said, adding that the proposals included “significant loopholes.”

Notably, Israel and its U.S. advocates appear to have gently backed away from a previous insistence that Iran not be allowed any enrichment capacity.

Yuval Steinitz, the intelligence minister who has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s point man in making Israel’s case abroad on Iran, no longer explicitly calls for an end to enrichment in his advocating for a deal that would keep Iran from breakout capacity.

In an Oct. 19 Op-Ed in The New York Times, Steinitz instead insisted that any deal should provide “clarity” on “the quantity and quality of Iran’s remaining operational centrifuges” and “the final destiny of its remaining centrifuges and their infrastructure.”

Notably, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in its latest talking points memo on Iran also backed away from explicit calls for an end to enrichment.

“Will Iran dismantle its centrifuge infrastructure so that it has no uranium path to a nuclear weapon?” AIPAC asked in outlining the conditions for an acceptable Iran deal – language that could conceivably allow for an enrichment capability, as long as it falls short of a “path to a nuclear weapon.”

Israel’s hard line on enrichment made sense, Dubowitz said.

“It’s actually helpful for the administration for the Israelis to talk about enrichment,” he said. “It helps to make the case that the enrichment has to be very, very small.”

A Foreign Ministry official in Germany, one of the six powers in talks with Iran, told JTA that a deal would “probably allow Iran more centrifuges, more enrichment than Israel would like.”

However, Tobias Tunkel, the deputy head of the division of the German Foreign Ministry that deals with Israel, said that the major powers “will make sure it is watertight that allows no breakout.”

Sherman in her speech said that if the talks fail, “responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran.”

Trita Parsi, the director of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has strongly backed the talks, said that positioning Iran to take the blame should the talks fail was a key message for Sherman, but added that the reverse held as well: Should Congress, spurred by pro-Israel groups, scuttle a deal, it would be blamed.

“If there is a deal and the entire world is ready for it,” he said, “it’s going to be very costly for the Congress to push against it.”