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Why Iran negotiators welcome spring break in Tehran, US

Analysis: Easter and Nowruz will ease political pressure on nuclear talks, but respite will be brief

Diplomats from six world powers and Iran meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, are hoping that the onset of springtime vacations in three key capitals will quiet the political static surrounding their nuclear negotiations and improve their prospects of concluding a new agreement by the end of this month.

Recent weeks have seen Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as hawkish legislators in Washington and in Tehran mobilizing against the compromise deal being negotiated. That agreement would see Iran continue to operate much of its nuclear infrastructure but under tighter, verifiable restrictions that would curb its ability to produce a nuclear weapon for at least a decade.

Now negotiators hope that the combination of Iran’s three-week Nowruz festival, the Easter recess of the U.S. Congress and the political distraction of Israel’s coalition negotiations will ease outside pressure on the negotiators in Switzerland.

Starting Friday, Iran shuts down for three weeks to celebrate Nowruz, the pre-Islamic Persian New Year. The holiday closure of parliament, government offices and newspapers will limit the opportunities for hard-liners to build opposition to concessions made by Iran’s negotiators.

The U.S. Congress, which includes at least as many skeptics of nuclear compromise as its Iranian counterpart, starts its two-week Easter recess on March 27. That means no floor votes on legislation such as the bill co-sponsored by Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey that would prevent Barack Obama’s administration from easing sanctions on Iran for 60 days, giving Congress an opportunity to review and possibly vote against a deal.

In Israel, Netanyahu may have made rejection of the nuclear deal a centerpiece of his campaign for re-election, but the vagaries of the Israeli parliamentary system will require him to spend the next couple of weeks in domestic political horse trading to translate his election victory into a viable coalition government.

In Lausanne, the nuclear negotiators are hoping the distraction of the deal’s main critics will improve their chances of concluding a political agreement — if not by the end of this week, then by the end of the month.

Iranian officials, whose citizens are eagerly anticipating sanctions relief, expressed optimism that an agreement is near.

Ali Akbar Salehi, a former foreign minister who now heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters on Tuesday that 90 percent of the issues have been resolved and only one major technical matter remains. Salehi, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT, has been working through these issues with a fellow MIT graduate and professor, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

But U.S. officials have adopted a more cautious tone.

“I am not going to get into specifics, but we have definitely made progress in terms of identifying technical options for each major area,” a senior U.S.  official told reporters on Tuesday. Still, the official added, “there is no way around it — we still have a ways to go.”

Iranian officials told Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen that one remaining area of contention is over how much research and development Iran will be allowed to conduct for the duration of the agreement.

Other sensitive issues include the schedule and parameters for sanctions relief and the extent and terms of international inspectors’ access to Iranian facilities.

While the public position from the White House remains that the odds of a deal are 50/50 at best, other U.S. officials, who have spoken on condition of anonymity, have been more bullish in recent weeks, putting the chances at 60/40 or even 70/30.

Negotiators have compared the technical complexity of an agreement to a Rubik’s Cube, because change to any one aspect requires alterations to other variables in order to maintain its effect: ensuring that it would take Iran at least a year to amass sufficient fissile material for a single bomb in the event that it abandons the agreement and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Before a November 2013 interim agreement went into effect, it was estimated that the breakout time for Iran was just three months.

“There are many, many pieces to [such an agreement],” a senior administration officials told reporters on Monday, “everything from the stockpile to the type of centrifuge, the type of centrifuge cascade, the infrastructure, research and development, the facility.” Maintaining the goal of ensuring a one-year breakout time means “if you move one of those items, it may change what you have to do on one of the other items.”

The process is made more difficult by the fact that members of the P5+1 group of world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) at the negotiating table are basing their assessments on different calculations regarding breakout time.

Iran has reportedly agreed to reduce the number of operating centrifuges from about 10,000 to about 6,500 and to change the configuration of cascades to limit their output of low-enriched uranium. Iran is also believed to have agreed to send abroad most of its low-enriched uranium output in order to limit the size of its stockpile and to swear off enrichment at an underground facility at Fordow.

Iran would close off another potential pathway to nuclear weapons by reconfiguring a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak so it yields a minuscule amount of plutonium. If Iran refrains from building a reprocessing facility, it would not be able to convert spent fuel from Arak into fissile material.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners insist that they will not agree to a bad deal and have urged outsiders to reserve judgment until an accord is in hand. But the recent controversial letter to Iran by 47 Republican senators warning that Congress or a GOP administration could overturn any deal signed by Obama served as a warning shot. The upcoming respite is likely to be brief, with the United States entering a presidential election cycle in which Iran looks set to be a top foreign policy issue. 

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