(CNSNews.com) – As President Obama prepares to deliver a speech Wednesday expected to push back against criticism of his foreign policy, the negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran that are a centerpiece of that policy are showing signs of strain.
While cautious about predicting eventual success, administration officials characterize the Iran talks as a significant diplomatic achievement. As the president faces criticism for his approach to challenges from Syria to the Middle East to Ukraine, the Iran negotiations are looking increasingly important for his foreign policy record.
But gaps between the two sides – Iran and the six nation group known as the P5+1 – have widened in recent weeks, and senior Iranians at the weekend underlined again Tehran’s refusal to address its missile program as part of a comprehensive agreement being negotiated in Vienna.
“Iran’s missile capacity is defensive, conventional and deterrent and it is not up for negotiations,” Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hussein Dehqan declared on Sunday, characterizing the missile capability as a needed response to the “Zionist regime’s” threats to the region.
The stance was echoed by the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, Brig. Gen. Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, who said not only would the missile capabilities not be on the agenda in the negotiations, they would in fact be enhanced.
In a speech Monday Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, said Iran has refused to accept any “excessive demands” in the talks and has defeated its foes’ attempts to turn the nuclear standoff into a “security issue.”
CNSNews first reported last February on rumbling differences over the missile issue.
The lead U.S. negotiator in the negotiations, undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman, has repeatedly insisted that the missiles will be covered under a final agreement, but as a July 20 deadline for achieving that final agreement draws closer the assurances are beginning to ring hollow, as the Iranians show no indication of backing down.
The issue is a crucial one: Iran’s increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile program already poses a potential threat to U.S. forces and allies in the Middle East and a portion of Europe, and the U.S. intelligence community has warned that “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”
The talks in Vienna are built on the interim “Joint Plan of Action” (JPOA) agreed last November, which offered Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program while a final deal is hammered out.
The missile dispute is largely a result of vague wording in the JPOA, which contains no direct reference to ballistic missiles.
The U.S. and other P5+1 partners point to JPOA language saying that the final agreement will deal with applicable U.N. Security Council resolutions, “with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the U.N. Security Council’s consideration of this matter.”
Since those Security Council resolutions cite the ballistic missile threat, Sherman argues, that clearly means missiles will be addressed in the final agreement.
Iran would never have agreed to the inclusion of a direct reference to missiles in the JPOA. Sherman has denied claims by skeptical U.S. lawmakers that this is a “loophole” ripe for Iran to exploit.
The most recent round of talks ended on May 16. The other P5+1 partners are Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany.
Apart from the missile issue, the sides are split over the question of how big a uranium enrichment program Iran should be allowed to keep as part of a comprehensive final deal.
(Although the Security Council resolutions call for a complete suspension of enrichment, the P5+1 backed away from insisting on a complete ban. While the administration continues to state that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not give any country the “right” to enrich, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, on Sunday repeated the assertion that Iran as an NPT signatory has the right to enrich, “whether the other side recognizes it or not.”)
At the center of the enrichment process, centrifuges spin at high speeds to enrich uranium to varying degrees, providing fuel for nuclear reactors or, in the case of very high levels of enrichment, producing a key ingredient for an atomic bomb.
The P5+1 want Iran to cut its 19,000 centrifuges to around 4,000. But Iran wants to increase the number to some 50,000, saying it will need that many to feed a nuclear energy program which it plans to expand.
Another important issue dogging the talks is what is known as the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s current and past nuclear program activities.
In a report in November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said there was “credible” evidence that Iran carried out “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” as part of a “structured program” until the end of 2003 – and that there were indications that some of those activities had continued after 2003 and “may still be ongoing.”
“The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program,” it said.
Among the alleged PMD activities enumerated in that report was work on detonator designs, including detonator devices that could be used in a nuclear weapon and fit in a ballistic missile warhead.
Some of this alleged work was carried out at a military site called Parchin, near Tehran, where Iran was suspected of carrying out explosive tests that may have nuclear warhead applications.
Iran at the time rejected the allegations, but as part of the talks with the P5+1 it has undertaken to clear up the questions with the IAEA.
There are signs they remain unaddressed, however. In its most recent report, released on Friday, the IAEA says it has informed Iran that it “needs to be able to conduct a system assessment of the outstanding [PMD] issues.”
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said the IAEA’s plan for a “system assessment” suggests that Iran has not been cooperating with the nuclear watchdog in resolving the outstanding PMD issues.
Back in February, Sherman assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the resolution of IAEA questions about the PMD issues, including the activities at Parchin, was a requirement.
“In the Joint Plan of Action we have required that Iran come clean on its past actions as part of any comprehensive agreement,” she said, saying the parties would work with the IAEA to address “past and present issues of concern” – that is, PMD questions.