A reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. / Magid Asgraipour, AFP/Getty Images
The emerging deal with Iran over its nuclear program is unlikely to satisfy members of Congress who seek to end Iran's ability to develop a nuclear weapon.
U.S. diplomats met Wednesday in Vienna with Iran and other world powers to begin writing the text of a final deal. Though the sides remain far apart on several issues, the Obama administration may allow an Iranian nuclear program that retains the capabilities to produce a weapon.
"The Iranians will have some kind of (uranium) enrichment capacity" at the end of negotiations, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has advised the administration on Iran sanctions.
Jofi Joseph, former director for non-proliferation in Obama's national security council, said any deal would increase inspections and monitoring, along with the number of inspectors in Iran and the number of places they can go. "Those would significantly reduce the chance of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon," Joseph said.
The talks are being coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Her spokesman, Michael Mann, said Wednesday that parties were "getting down to the nitty-gritty." The talks will continue until Friday, the Associated Press reported. An interim agreement reached in November set a target date of July 20 for a deal.
Obama has said repeatedly that an Iranian nuclear bomb is "unacceptable."
Iran, which backs several terrorist organizations in the Middle East, has the world's fourth-largest oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves. Yet Iran's leaders say its nuclear program is for power generation and medical and scientific research, a claim the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency has questioned.
"If they accuse us of building a nuclear bomb, their claim would be baseless as a lie," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Monday, according to Iran's Mehr News Agency. "We would not tolerate scientific apartheid and deem ourselves equal before international conventions; yet we would not do any illegal and unlawful act."
Iranian officials have refused to dismantle their $100 billion nuclear infrastructure, including machines for producing nuclear fuel and a heavy-water power plant near the city of Arak that would produce plutonium, a possible alternate fuel for a bomb.
Secretary of State John Kerry has said that increasing Iran's "breakout period" - the time it would take to produce enough nuclear fuel for one bomb - from two months to six to 12 months would be a significant accomplishment. "I'm not saying that's what we'd settle for," he said.
Dubowitz said a six-to-12-month breakout window would give the United States more time to discover any duplicity and mobilize to stop it if Iran cheated on a deal.
It's unclear whether such an agreement would satisfy Israel or U.S. senators, both Republicans and Democrats, who have signed onto a bill that would increase economic sanctions on Iran unless it agrees to much greater limitations.
That bill would require the president to certify that Iran's program has no military dimension, that "illicit" facilities for producing nuclear fuel are dismantled, that Iran answer questions on suspected past military dimensions of its program and that it curtail development of ballistic missiles.
One of the thorniest issues to settle is whether Iran will destroy, dismantle or simply deactivate machines for producing nuclear fuel, called centrifuges, said arms control expert David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
Albright, who has testified before Congress and consulted with administration officials, said a six-to-12-month breakout period could be achieved if Iran's 19,000 active and non-operating centrifuges were reduced to 5,000.
"The question is what happens to the rest," Albright said. "There's evidence that the administration will fold and allow Iran to keep the remainder of centrifuges in place, not operating, or allow them to keep them somewhere."
Leaving centrifuges in place but turned off or disabled, or dismantling them and moving them to storage, "doesn't address the concerns" that Iran could abandon the deal after economic pressure lifted and get them working again, Albright said.
"You need a deal that would guarantee that if Iran does make that move, the United States does have time to figure out how to respond and stop it," Albright said.
Safeguards and monitoring measures could be implemented that would alert the world community if Iran violated the terms of an agreement, Joseph said.
"Folks on the Hill are pretending a deal that would completely eliminate Iran's breakout capability is possible, and that simply is not the case," Joseph said. "As long as it has a limited number of centrifuges spinning, it has, at least in theory, the possibility of breaking out to produce a weapon."
Centrifuges could be removed and stored in a facility under constant monitoring by the U.N. atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. An agreement could curtail Iran's development of much more efficient centrifuges, Joseph said.
"The haggling and horse trading is going to start," said Michael Adler, analyst at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank based in Washington.
"They have gone over everything, and obviously, they're wide apart," he said. "In other words, the real work begins now."
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