White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed Zarif's comment as "spin" on Iran's commitments under the Joint Plan of Action "for their domestic political purposes."
He refused to say whether that agreement involved any "dismantling" by Iran, but confirmed that, "as part of that comprehensive agreement, should it be reached, Iran will be required to agree to strict limits and constraints on all aspects of its nuclear program to include the dismantlement of significant portions of its nuclear infrastructure in order to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the future."
But the State Department spokesperson, Marie Harf, was much less categorical in a press briefing Jan. 13: "We've said that in a comprehensive agreement, there will likely have to be some dismantling of some things."
That remark suggests that the Kerry and Carney rhetoric of "dismantlement" serves to neutralize the Israel loyalists and secondarily to maximise U.S. leverage in the approaching negotiations.
Kerry and other U.S. officials involved in the negotiations know that Iran does not need to destroy any centrifuges in order to resolve the problem of "breakout" to weapons grade enrichment once the stockpile of 20- percent enriched uranium disappears under the terms of the interim agreement.
Zarif had proposed in his initial power point presentation in October a scheme under which Iran would convert its entire stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium into an oxide form that could only be used for fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor.
U.S. officials who had previously been insistent that Iran would have to ship the stockpile out of the country were apparently convinced that there was another way to render it "unusable" for the higher-level enrichment necessary for nuclear weapons. That Iranian proposal became the central element in the interim agreement.
But there was another part of Zarif's power point that is relevant to the remaining problem of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium: Iran's planned conversion of that stockpile into the same oxide form for fuel rods for nuclear power plants as was used to solve the 20-percent stockpile problem.
And that plan was accepted by the United States as a way of dealing with additional low-enriched uranium that would be produced during the six-month period.
An element included in the Joint Plan of Action which has been ignored thus far states: "Beginning when the line for conversion of UF6 enriched up to 5% to UO2 is ready, Iran has decided to convert to oxide UF6 newly enriched up to 5% during the 6 month period, as provided in the operational schedule of the conversion plant declared to the IAEA."
The same mechanism -- the conversion of all enriched uranium to oxide on an agreed time frame -- could also be used to ensure that the entire stockpile of low-enriched uranium could no longer be used for "breakout" to weapons-grade enrichment without the need to destroy a single centrifuge. In fact, it would allow Iran to enrich uranium at a low level for a nuclear power program.
The Obama administration's rhetoric of "dismantlement," however, has created a new political reality: the U.S. news media has accepted the idea that Iran must "dismantle" at least some of its nuclear program to prove that it is not seeking nuclear weapons.
CNN Anchor Chris Cuomo was shocked by the effrontery of Zarif and Rouhani. "That's supposed to be the whole underpinning of moving forward from the United States perspective," Cuomo declared, "is that they scale back, they dismantle, all this stuff we've been hearing."
Yet another CNN anchor, Wolf Blitzer, who was an official of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee before becoming a network journalist, called Zarif's statements "stunning and truly provocative," adding that they would "give ammunition" to those in Congress pushing for a new sanctions bill that is clearly aimed at sabotaging the negotiations.
The Obama administration may be planning to exercise more diplomatic flexibility to agree to solutions other than demanding that Iran "dismantle" large parts of its "nuclear infrastructure."
But using such rhetoric, rather than acknowledging the technical and diplomatic realities surrounding the talks, threatens to create a political dynamic that discourages reaching a reasonable agreement and leaves them unresolved.