Iran talks: Arak reportedly still a sticking point, but who’s stuck?

This is a month-old story, but Zack Beauchamp just referenced it in a Vox piece today, so it’s worth looking at. After the last round of nuclear talks concluded in Vienna last month, the top Russian negotiator told reporters that there was “no consensus” on the final disposition of the heavy-water reactor (and plutonium proliferation risk) at Arak, which is a piece of the nuclear puzzle that most folks (me included) have assumed was more or less already in place:

Iran says the 40-megawatt Arak reactor is intended to produce isotopes for cancer and other medical treatments. It agreed to halt installation work at Arak late last year as part of an interim deal to buy time for negotiators to reach a broader accord.

As two days of talks wrapped up Thursday in Vienna, Russia’s chief negotiator said there was “no consensus” among the seven countries on the Arak facility, which is southwest of Tehran.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, talking to Russian journalists Thursday, described Arak as one of three key areas where “blocks of questions” remain. Arak is “still not worked out,” he said, according to the RIA Novosti news service.

The obvious conclusion is that Iran and the P5+1 still aren’t on the same page on Arak, which doesn’t exactly bode well for talks that are 10 days away from their deadline. But it’s interesting that Ryabkov doesn’t actually say that. Instead he opts for the ambiguous “no consensus” statement, which allows for the possibility that it’s actually an internal disagreement among the P5+1 nations that’s holding things up.

If that’s the case, the next assumption would be that the U.S. is taking the hard line, but there’s plenty of reason to speculate otherwise. Last November, when France balked at the initial version of the Joint Plan of Action, they did so largely over concerns about Arak, and in the end the French got mostly what they wanted, an agreement by the Iranians not to commission the Arak reactor for the duration of the agreement. If it’s not France, it could be Ryabkov’s Russian delegation that’s blocking an Arak compromise; there was that recent and jarring report from one Iranian official that the Russians have actually been an obstacle to reaching a deal.

The point is, there’s a strong possibility that whatever the conflict over Arak is, it’s an internal P5+1 conflict rather than one with the Iranians.

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