David Ignatius
Opinion writer July 2, 2012

Examining the negotiating proposal Iran made to the “P5 + 1” group last month, you can see areas where the two sides might eventually agree — but also a gap in current positions that’s so wide the most likely outcome is that the talks will collapse after a scheduled experts’ meeting this week.

The possible point of agreement is the demand that Iran stop enriching uranium to 20 percent and export its existing stockpile of such fuel. The text of the Iranian proposal doesn’t concede this directly, but several Iranian sources have said the language allows room for an eventual deal on this issue.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The two sides are still so far apart, however, that Iranian sources agree with U.S. and European officials that a deal may be impossible by Wednesday’s scheduled end of discussions. Iran might be willing — as U.S. and Israeli officials are hoping — to continue talks in another setting if such a breakdown occurs, but that’s far from assured.

I obtained from a source close to the talks the 48-page PowerPoint presentation Iranian negotiators gave in Moscow. It’s an argumentative document, conveying Iran’s view in language that is, by turns, defensive and sharply assertive.

The Iranians’ overarching theme, to which they devote the first third of their presentation, is that “enrichment is an inalienable and chartered right” under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed decades ago. Some U.S. and Israeli experts say this claim is questionable, given the treaty’s vague language, but Iranian officials have insisted this be the cornerstone of any deal.

The Iranians sketch their guidelines in a section titled “a framework for comprehensive and targeted dialogue for long term cooperation.” As a first step, Iran “emphasizes . . . its opposition to nuclear weapons based on the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against such weapons.” In return, the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia would recognize Iran’s rights under the NPT, “particularly its enrichment activities.”

Next, Iran proposes “transparency measures” that would include cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency on what the IAEA said in March are “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s avowedly peaceful program. In exchange, the United States and its allies would halt their unilateral sanctions outside the United Nations framework.

The third step is a vaguely worded offer to “cooperate with 5 + 1 to provide enriched fuel needed for TRR,” a reference to the Tehran Research Reactor that uses 20 percent fuel. Iranian sources say this brief reference opens the door for meeting the demand on the 20 percent fuel, described by the shorthand “stop and ship.” In return, the Iranians want an end to all U.N. sanctions.

Reading the document, it’s clear why Western negotiators see an impasse. Even if the language on 20 percent enrichment could be finessed, the Iranian presentation emphatically rejects the West’s additional demand to close the Fordow facility, deep under a mountain near Qom. Explaining why this facility is so heavily fortified, the document states: “Facing constant threats, we need a back-up facility to safeguard our enrichment activities.” This is precisely what worries the United States and Israel.

Complicating matters further, the Iranians also propose cooperation on “regional issues especially Syria and Bahrain,” in exchange for their help “combating piracy and counter-narcotic activities.” That won’t fly with Washington, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will oppose any deal that doesn’t stop Iran’s enrichment activity altogether and remove the six tons of low-enriched fuel, in addition to the material enriched to 20 percent.

If the talks break down this week, the question will be whether negotiations might begin on another track. In the past several years, the Iranians have signaled they are ready for secret bilateral talks with the United States, and several Iranian sources indicate this still might be possible. But time is short, and election-year pressures will make real bargaining difficult.

The pressure is on Iran to make a deal. Sanctions have pounded its currency, financial markets and commercial activities, and a new round that took effect this week could slash oil exports. Hard-liners in Iran’s parliament have begun calling for counter-measures to punish the United States and its allies — or for Iran to quit the NPT and stop cooperating with inspectors. But those actions could trigger a U.S. military response.

One other item caught my eye — a warning that Iran may need even more 20 percent fuel than anticipated because of plans for “at least four other research reactors” and for exporting enriched fuel “to other countries.” Maybe that’s a bargaining chip, or maybe it’s a sign these negotiations really are headed into the ditch. Perhaps the Iranians have a bargain in mind, but it it’s hard to see it in their presentation.

davidignatius@washpost.com