Iran, Big Power Nuclear Talks Hit Snag on Centrifuge Research

(Reuters) -

Negotiations between Iran and six world powers on implementing a landmark November deal to freeze parts of Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing some sanctions have run into problems over advanced centrifuge research, diplomats said.

The dispute over centrifuges highlighted the huge challenges facing Iran and the six powers in negotiating the precise terms of the November 24 interim agreement. If they succeed, they plan to start talks on a long-term deal to resolve a more than decade-long dispute over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Among the issues to be resolved in political discussions due to begin in Geneva later this week is that of research and development of a new model of advanced nuclear centrifuge that Iran says it has installed, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

Centrifuges are machines that purify uranium for use as fuel in atomic power plants or, if purified to a high level, weapons.

“This issue (centrifuges) was among the main factors in stopping the previous technical discussions on December 19-21,” a Western diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Other Western diplomats confirmed that centrifuges remained a “sticking point” in the talks with Iran but noted that last month’s discussions were adjourned because of year-end holidays.

“As part of the (November 24) agreement, Iran is permitted to engage in R&D, but that is tempered by the fact that it is prohibited to install new centrifuges, except as required by wear and tear,” the first diplomat said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was keen to see the interim deal implemented, though she declined to predict the outcome of the latest talks.

She said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman will be in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the issue with her EU counterpart, Helga Schmid and Iran’s negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi.

In December, Al-Monitor, a news website focusing on the Middle East, cited a former U.S. official as saying Iran had notified the six powers it wanted to install additional “IR-2m” centrifuges, modified versions of second-generation machines. The website also said the former U.S. official suggested this may have played a role in the dispute.

But diplomats now say Iran has told the six countries it wants to press ahead with the development of even more advanced centrifuges than the IR-2m.

Iran is already testing several different new centrifuge models at its Natanz research facility, according to the U.N.

Western diplomats said they were uncomfortable with Iran pressing ahead with the development of more advanced centrifuges. Iran says centrifuge research is crucial.

“We have to make sure our right to research and development is respected,” a senior Iranian government official said on condition of anonymity.

Israel, which has been highly critical of the six powers’ deal with Iran, was not surprised by Iran’s attempts to ensure that it could continue with advanced centrifuge research.

“It was clear from the outset that the Iranians would play games,” an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity. “They did it in the past, and now they’re up to their old tricks again.”