John Kerry, US secretary of state, left, with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, at nuclear talks in Lausanne

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The Iran nuclear talks are an international diplomatic effort to permanently restrict Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon in return for an end to the crippling sanctions that have brought the country’s economy to its knees. On the one side are the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany; the EU is also represented. On the other side is Iran.

Weren’t these talks supposed to finish last year?

Yes. The talks began in November 2013, when Iran and the P5+1 signed a landmark temporary accord that froze the Iranian nuclear programme, made some timid first steps to rewinding it and granted limited economic relief. The main achievement of the compact, however, was to set up a negotiating framework of six months, after which the P5+1 was supposed to have agreed a full, and permanent binding contract to the satisfaction of all sides. The six months expired in July 2014. It was extended a further four months, but in November, that also ended. Diplomats felt they had made sufficient progress to grant themselves another extension.

What is happening this week?

John Kerry, US secretary of state, outlined a two-phase period for a final deal after talks broke down in November. The new deadline for the talks is the end of June. But as a precondition of the extension, the parties agreed that by the end of March they would publicly announce the broad outline of a deal. “The objective would be to have an agreement that sets out in layman’s language what we have agreed to do,” Philip Hammond, UK foreign secretary, said. “There will then be some further technical work while the tech experts translate that into very precise technical definitions of what will happen on the ground.”

What is expected to happen?

Most parties concede that there has been substantial progress in closing some of the key gaps in thinking. The expectation is that the P5+1 and Iran will form some kind of broad-brush agreement by the end of March. But that is not set in stone. The Iranians worry about being bounced into a deal they will find hard to sell at home — particularly since the P5+1 wants to leave specifics about sanctions relief until the next phase of discussions rather than addressing them now. Even if a deal is achieved, the consensus among analysts is that the final, technical deal could unravel because of insurmountable details, such as sanctions relief and the nature of Iran’s research into new enrichment technologies.

What are the key concerns?

The central concern of the P5+1 is Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. Iran says it has the right to enrich its own uranium for civilian purposes. The P5+1 says Iran can import uranium for power generation, like most other countries, but it also believes Iran wants to enrich uranium so it can build weapons. Iran operates 10,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium and has plans to build many more, and the P5+1 originally demanded Iran scrap them all. The nuclear talks envisage Iran being allowed to operate about 6,000 centrifuges but with a range of other stringent curbs imposed on its programme to limit the ease with which they could be used to quickly amass a stockpile of material for a bomb. The red line for the P5+1 is that it should take Iran a minimum of one year to enrich enough uranium for such a purpose. This is known as the “breakout time”. The factors involved in determining this are fiendishly complicated.

Iran's nuclear sites

The other key issue on the table is the future of Iran’s nuclear power plant at Arak, which in its current configuration will be able to produce plutonium — also usable in nuclear weapons — if it comes online. Under the talks all further construction work on Arak, which was due to begin operating last year, has been halted.

What is at stake diplomatically?

A huge amount. A nuclear detente with Tehran is the centrepiece of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It has already driven a wedge between the White House and Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East. In Iran itself, meanwhile, the credibility of Hassan Rouhani, its reformist president, hinges almost entirely on his ability to strike some kind of workable deal that will save the country’s economy while preserving national pride.

If the talks fall apart, Iran may begin to reinstate the parts of its uranium enrichment programme that have been put on hold during the negotiations. At best, that could lead to a new arms race in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sworn geopolitical rival, would likely look to build its own nuclear arsenal. At worst, this could lead to war. The US and Israel have both stressed that they are willing to use military force if necessary to stop Iran becoming a nuclear-armed state.

And if there is no deal by the end of March?

There’s always the option of another extension.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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