Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has laid out an unusually detailed set of demands for what he would accept in a nuclear deal, further complicating the high-stakes efforts to reach an agreement before a July 20 deadline.
Khamenei's declaration that any nuclear deal preserve Tehran's right to enrich uranium on an industrial scale to fuel its long-term energy needs echoes what Iranian negotiators have said throughout the talks, which began in earnest last year and are currently continuing in Vienna. Still, by drawing a red line in public, a rarity for Iran's top cleric, Khamenei signaled that Tehran wasn't prepared to accede to Western demands that it sharply curtail its enrichment activities. The United States and its allies have long accused Tehran of trying to produce weapons-grade uranium to build a weapon, a charge Khamenei has repeatedly denied.
The remarks come amid signs of disunity among big-power diplomats as talks near a self-imposed July 20 deadline for a deal between Iran and the permanent five members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- plus Germany, which are negotiating collectively as the P5+1.
Speaking to senior-level technocrats on Monday, Khamenei said Iran signaled that Tehran would eventually need up to 190,000 centrifuges, depending on their sophistication -- far more than the 10,000 he says world powers are willing to allow Tehran to acquire. Western governments want to curb Iran's nuclear enrichment capacity in order to inhibit its ability to develop a nuclear bomb. Tehran insists it wants such a large quantity for peaceful purposes, such as medical isotopes and nuclear energy.
"On the issue of enrichment capacity, [the West's] aim is make Iran accept 10,000 SWU," Khamenei said, using an acronym for a highly technical term, "separative work units," that measures how much uranium individual centrifuges can enrich in a year. "Our officials say we need 190,000 SWU.... [T]his is our absolute need and we need to meet this need."
Iran hawks said Khamenei's insistence that Iran have greater enrichment capacity was an attempt to force the United States and its allies into a bad deal.
"Khamenei is trying to trap the United States by demanding industrial-size enrichment capacity," said Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Khamenei's comments came as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a parliamentary committee in Paris on Monday that countries within the P5+1 were beginning to disagree about the makeup of a final deal with Iran. Fabius said the Western powers had previously been "very homogeneous" in their negotiations with Iran, but that "in the past days representatives in the negotiations have put forward a certain number of different approaches between part of the P5+1 and our Russian partners."
Fabius didn't spell out the West's differences with Moscow, which has traditionally been more sympathetic to Iran than those in the Western camp. Some Western officials have long feared that Washington's confrontation with Moscow over its annexation of Crimea would make Russian President Vladimir Putin even more willing to break with the West over Iran.
Still, the French foreign minister hinted that there was some daylight between the countries over whether to call in senior government officials to put the talks back on track or leave things in the hands of mid-level diplomats. Speaking before France's parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Fabius said the Obama administration has a "desire" to carry out a meeting of foreign ministers before the July 20 deadline. "I don't have a strong view on it, but at one point between now and July 20 we shall know where we stand," he said.
The talks currently underway in Vienna are centered on a deal that would require Iran to provide verifiable assurances that its nuclear program is limited to fueling the country's energy needs in exchange for easing international sanctions.
Fabius said that "none of the primary points [of contention] have been resolved," including the fate of a heavy water reactor at Arak that Western powers fear could be used to produce plutonium, as well as procedures for monitoring Iran's compliance with any nuclear deal and easing sanctions.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that "significant gaps remain with Iran" but stressed that the P5+1 countries remained united on how to proceed in the talks.
Despite Khamenei's demands, Laicie Heeley of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation said that it's natural for both sides to stake out hard-line positions before a final deal is struck.
"At this point we should realize that we're still very much involved in a negotiation, and each side is likely to hold out for compromise as long as it can," she said. "In the end, they'll both have to move."
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images