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Iran, world powers try to move nuclear talks up a gear
by Staff Writers
Vienna (AFP) April 08, 2014

Iran nuclear 'breakout' time at two months: Kerry
Washington (AFP) April 08, 2014 - Iran is two months away from breakout capability to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb should they resume their mothballed enrichment process, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Tuesday.

Tehran is in the thick of international negotiations over its nuclear program, with a fresh round of talks beginning on Tuesday in Vienna aimed at starting a draft of an historic final deal.

Under a temporary deal which took effect January 20, Iran froze certain nuclear activities for six months in exchange for minor relief from sanctions hurting its economy.

A full-bore resumption of enrichment -- a gross violation of the temporary accord -- could see Tehran move swiftly toward nuclear breakout.

"I think it is fair to say, I think it is public knowledge today, that we are operating with a time period for a so-called breakout of about two months," Kerry told US lawmakers.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez cited reports that said UN Security Council permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, along with Germany, should focus on extending the time it would take for Iran to produce nuclear weapons to between six and 12 months.

Kerry said the ultimate goal was assurance that Iran never build an atomic bomb.

"So six months to 12 months is -- I'm not saying that's what we'd settle for -- but even that is significantly more" than the estimated two months to breakout, he said.

With substantial pressure for concessions from both sides during the current round of talks, US lawmakers urged Kerry to hold the line on Iran's Arak heavy water reactor, which they want to see fully dismantled.

Tehran last month insisted that the reactor, a concern to the West because Tehran could extract weapons-grade plutonium from its spent fuel if it also builds a reprocessing facility, will not be torn down.

Menendez said Arak remained part of a "worrisome" effort by Tehran to advance its nuclear program in the midst of the negotiations.

"Their research and development capacity (is) still moving forward as we speak, which only allows them to create more sophisticated centrifuges, which closes the window for them even more quickly" towards breakout capacity, Menendez told Kerry.

The top US diplomat stressed his team was "approaching these talks seriously and with our eyes wide open," and that international inspectors were gaining "amazing capacity" to track Iran's nuclear activity, including first-time inspection opportunities in nuclear sites including Fordo and Natanz, and fuller inspections of Arak.

"We've been very clear that there is no legitimacy to a full-on heavy water plutonium reactor" for civilian use, Kerry said.

"That has to be dealt with in the context of the negotiations. It will be."

Iran and world powers held a new round of nuclear talks Tuesday hoping to move to the next level and start drafting a historic and highly ambitious final deal next month.

Threatening to drive a wedge between the powers, however, is the crisis over Ukraine, which has led to the biggest standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Iran and the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany want to transform a temporary accord struck in November into a permanent agreement before it lapses on July 20.

Doing so is a tall order, however, requiring both sides to tackle thorny issues that will severely test their willingness and ability to give ground.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday that he has formed a group of legal experts to help in the "complicated, difficult and slow work" of drafting a deal.

A spokesman for the powers' chief negotiator, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said this round, expected to last two days, was to "explore our respective positions on each topic".

A senior US official involved in the talks said Friday she was "absolutely convinced" a deal could be reached and that both sides were "looking toward beginning drafting in May".

Under the November deal, which took effect on January 20, Iran froze certain nuclear activities for six months in exchange for minor relief from sanctions hurting its economy.

But it has not permanently dismantled any of its nuclear equipment and could any moment stop the freeze, although this would invite new sanctions.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told US lawmakers Monday that the theoretical period needed for Iran to produce a weapon's worth of bomb material -- if it chose to do so -- was "about two months".

In order to greatly extend this "break-out" time, the six powers want the final deal to see Iran reduce permanently, or at least long-term, the scope of its programme.

The deal may involve Iran slashing the number of centrifuges -- machines "enriching" nuclear material -- changing the design of a new reactor at Arak and giving UN inspectors more oversight.

Iran in return wants all sanctions lifted.

- Hardliners -

If Iran gives away too much this risks losing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani -- who since taking office last year has sought to improve ties with the West -- the support of the supreme leader.

But leaving too much -- or indeed any -- of Iran's nuclear infrastructure intact would be hard to sell with sceptical US lawmakers and Israel, the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power.

So far, the six powers have shown a united front. But Moscow's annexation of Crimea last month has sent relations between Russia and the West into a tailspin.

Following the latest unrest in the east this weekend, with pro-Russian activists storming government buildings, the White House on Monday warned Moscow against efforts to "destabilise Ukraine".

The Kremlin swatted the accusations aside, warning the pro-Western government in Kiev against any use of force and saying Tuesday there was a "risk of unleashing civil war".

Russia's chief negotiator, Sergei Ryabkov, fired a warning shot last month, saying Moscow might "take the path of counter-measures" on Iran if pushed too far.

On Tuesday however Ryabkov sounded a more conciliatory note, telling ITAR-TASS it would "not be wise" to turn Iran into a "bargaining chip".

Russia was not involved in the Iran talks "to please the Americans or Iranians" but because it "meets the national interest" to find a solution, he said.

Moscow and Iran are said to be negotiating an oil-for-goods barter deal that would undermine Washington's sanctions efforts, a strategy the US credits with getting Iran to talks in the first place.


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Chinese man, Iranian indicted in US over Iran exports
Washington (AFP) April 05, 2014
A Chinese man, an Iranian and two Iranian firms were charged in the United States with conspiring to export devices to Iran that can serve to enrich uranium, an indictment unsealed Friday said. Sihai Cheng, 34, was arrested on February 7 at London's Heathrow Airport. London's Metropolitan Police force said Cheng had already appeared at a court in the capital and was awaiting his next app ... read more

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