Cross-posted from Inter Press Service
As the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program approach the July 20 deadline, both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have signaled through their carefully worded statements that they are now moving toward toward agreement on the two most crucial issues in the talks: the level of Iranian enrichment capability to be allowed and the duration of the agreement.
Their statements after two days of meetings Sunday and Monday suggest that both Kerry and Zarif now see a basis for an agreement that would freeze Iran's enrichment capacity at somewhere around its present level of 10,000 operational centrifuges for a period of years.
They also indicated that the two sides have not yet agreed on how many years the agreement would last, but that the bargaining on that question has already begun.
The tone and content of Kerry's statements in particular contrasts sharply with remarks by a senior U.S. official shortly before Kerry's arrival in Vienna on July 12, which accused Iran of failing to move from "unworkable and inadequate positions that would not in fact assure us that their program is exclusively peaceful."
Zarif's comments to New York Times correspondent David E. Sanger suggested movement toward an accord on the two key issues of the level of enrichment capacity and the duration of the agreement.
"I can try to work out an agreement where we would maintain our current levels," Zarif was quoted as saying.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that a diplomat involved in the talks had said Iran had proposed freezing the number of centrifuges at 9, 400 -- roughly the same number that have actually been operating.
Iran has another 9,000 centrifuges that were installed but never hooked up or operated, suggesting that Iran intended to trade them off for concessions from the P5+1 in eventual negotiations even before Hassan Rouhani became president last year.
The Times story reported that Zarif also "signaled that he had some room to negotiate on how long the freeze would last because Iran has an agreement with Russia to provide fuel for its Bushehr nuclear plant for the next seven years."
"We want to produce only what we need," Zarif said. "Since our reactor doesn't need fuel for another seven years we don't have to kill ourselves for it. We have time."
Zarif's latitude for negotiating on the expiration date may be wider than has been assumed because Iran is pursuing a possible deal with Russia on cooperation in fuel fabrication, according to a document on Iran's nuclear energy needs recently released by the government.
Such an agreement could eliminate the need to begin replacing Russian fuel immediately after the expiration of the present contract.
In his press conference Tuesday, Kerry refused to address the question of specific numbers of centrifuges discussed with Zariff. Nevertheless, he said, "We have made it crystal clear that the 19,000 that are currently part of their program is too many."
By referring to the 19,000 figure rather than to the 10,000 operative centrifuges, Kerry was leaving the door open to a deal that would cut half of Iran's total centrifuge capacity.
As recently as June, Obama administration officials were leaking to the press a demand that Iran would have to accept a cut in the number of centrifuges to between 2,000 and 4,000.