(Reuters) - Iran and six major powers are negotiating in the Swiss city of Lausanne ahead of an end-March deadline for a historic framework agreement that would curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.
Iran denies allegations by Western powers and their allies that it is seeking a nuclear weapons capability.
Following are details about key issues under negotiation based on information from sources close to the negotiations. Most of the issues are agreed, but sticking points remain.
The goal of the negotiations is an arrangement whereby Iran would need at least one year to produce enough fissile material -- high enriched uranium or plutonium -- for a single atomic weapon, should Tehran choose to produce one. That is known as the “break-out” time.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview on March 2 with Reuters that Iran must accept limits on its nuclear program for at least 10 years. Recently Iran had wanted eight years and the United States 20 years. They have compromised at least 10 years, though Washington wants more.
France wants a deal in place for at least 15 years with an additional 10 years of more intrusive monitoring Tehran’s nuclear program.
Originally Iran wanted to maintain all of its uranium enrichment centrifuges, machines that purify uranium for use as fuel in power plants or, if very highly enriched, in weapons. That was around 10,000 operational out of nearly 20,000 total.
The United States and other Western powers originally wanted Iran to reduce that number to several hundred. Numbers are still being discussed. Iran wants to keep around 9,000. An Iranian government website reported in November that Washington told Iran it could keep roughly 6,000 early generation centrifuges.
The issue has not been resolved.
Officials close to the talks say that Iran’s desire to pursue research and development into advanced centrifuges remains one of the biggest sticking points in the talks. Iran insists that it should be allowed to continue R&D into advanced centrifuges but Western powers are extremely uncomfortable with allowing Tehran to continue developing more efficient centrifuges that would shorten the break-out time.
Western powers had originally wanted Iran to dismantle a heavy-water reactor at Arak that could yield significant quantities of plutonium. Tehran refused to do so but has agreed to the idea of converting or operating it in a way that ensures the amount of plutonium it could yield would be insignificant.
Iran has also agreed not to pursue technology for extracting plutonium from spent fuel.
An underground enrichment plant that Iranian officials say they have agreed to convert into an R&D plant. Western officials would like this site converted into something that has nothing to do with enrichment, but Tehran is insisting on the right to conduct advanced centrifuge research there. The issue remains under discussion and the United States and European powers dislike the idea of Iranians running centrifuges at Fordow.
The issue has not been resolved.
There are also discussions about the size of Iran’s uranium stockpiles and how much would be relocated to Russia or another country, Western officials say. Stockpiles are an important issue, officials say, because the less uranium Tehran has on hand, the more centrifuges it can maintain.
Originally, Iran wanted to enrich 2.5 tonnes of uranium per year, but could settle at half a tonne, a senior Iranian official said. The remainder would be turned into fuel rods or sent to Russia, he added.
Western officials say that allowing Iran to produce more than 250 kg a year would be problematic.
The speed of lifting sanctions is another major sticking point in the talks.
Iran wants all United Nations sanctions lifted immediately, along with U.S. and European Union financial and energy sanctions. The United States says sanctions should be lifted gradually. Officials close to the talks say Washington and France are willing to consider an immediate suspension of some U.N. sanctions if there is an agreement, though many U.N. restrictions would remain in place.
Tehran is most interested in seeing crippling energy and financial sanctions lifted, because they have devastated its economy.
The U.S. government says sanctions would first be suspended and later terminated. This has become a sensitive issue in the United States, as Republicans controlling both houses of Congress have threatened to impose new U.S. sanctions on Tehran against the advice of Obama. Obama has said he would veto any new sanctions steps for fear they would torpedo the delicate negotiations.
Obama can use executive authority to suspend sanctions but many U.S. measures can only be terminated by Congress. If there is no deal with Iran, the Obama administration says it will work with Congress on new sanctions.
The United States and its Western allies say it is vital that Iran fully cooperate with a U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into past nuclear activities that could be related to making weapons.
The IAEA issued a report in 2011 with intelligence information indicating concerted activities until about a decade ago that could be relevant for developing nuclear bombs. It said some of these might be continuing.
Iran for its part has said these “possible military dimensions” (PMD) are an issue it will not budge on. “PMD is out of the question. It cannot be discussed,” an Iranian official said. This issue has not been resolved and there are no signs it will be resolved anytime soon.
Any deal would require a vigorous monitoring framework to ensure Iranian compliance. Officials say they are working out a monitoring mechanism that would involve the IAEA.
Iranian officials reject Western demands for unlimited inspection powers for the IAEA.
Compiled by Louis Charbonneau, Parisa Hafezi and John Irish; Editing by Giles Elgood