Nuclear negotiations: the final countdown

Fancy a schnitzel, anyone? Good news, then, but only if you work for one of the governments involved in the ongoing negotiations on the future of Iran's nuclear programme. Their senior diplomats are all back in Vienna this week trying to hammer out a final deal, and they're racing to beat a self-imposed deadline at November 24th. Unfortunately, with that date fast approaching, there's a good chance that those schnitzels will have to be consumed in a tense hotel conference room alongside centrifuge charts and reactor drawings rather than in a Viennese bierkeller with the Scorpions playing in the background.

There's a lot at stake in these final talks. Presidents Obama and Rouhani have staked substantial political capital on their success. The P5+1 countries, all who have their own interests in the future of relations with Iran, have worked hard to maintain a united front - but that's not been easy, particularly in light of other crises across the world. No-one wants to see these talks fail, because the alternative is not at all a pleasant one.

Many of the most contentious issues in the negotiations have probably already been worked out. Some diplomats have described the work of the talks as 95% complete, with small but important sticking points remaining over Iran's future capacity to enrich uranium and the sequence in which sanctions might be lifted.

Lifting of those sanctions, it seems, is going to rely on Iran's full cooperation with the IAEA's investigation into the so-called Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme. At the heart of the PMD issue is a wide-ranging and persuasive body of evidence that shows that prior to 2004, Iran had a dedicated nuclear weapons programme operated by the country's military and IRGC. The evidence also shows that since late 2003, when Iran's Supreme Leader put a halt to that programme, military scientists have continued to undertake nuclear weapon-related research, probably in the expectation - or hope - that one day Khamenei's halt order will be reversed.

Closing the IAEA's file on PMD is going to take some serious concessions by Iran, or some very adroit diplomacy. So far, Tehran has denied that it ever had nuclear weapon aspirations - let alone a concerted effort to build nukes - and has mostly stonewalled the IAEA's efforts to assay the weapon-related evidence that it has gained over the past decade. Every step of progress on PMD (like Iran's offer to explain its past work on exploding bridgewire detonators, a crucial nuclear weapon component) is accompanied by a half-step back, and it's not at all clear how this dance routine will ever change.

Stonewalling has been a fairly effective strategy for Iran so far, but the body of evidence on PMD just keeps building. Just last week, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (a nutty opposition group with admittedly good access inside the nuclear programme) has released a bunch of new information about the mysterious Parchin military site. We'll be taking a look at the details over the next couple of days - needless to say, they won't help Iran's current claim that it never, ever sought nuclear weapons.

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