US and Iran 'discuss nuclear deal'
The US and Iran are discussing a compromise that would let Iran keep much of its uranium-enriching technology but reduce its potential to make nuclear weapons,according to diplomats.
Such a compromise could break the decade-long deadlock on attempts to limit Iranian activities that could be used to make weapons.
Tehran refuses to meet US-led demands for deep cuts in the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium, a process that can create material for anything from chemotherapy to the core of an atomic bomb.
Experts warn that any reduction in centrifuge efficiency is reversible more quickly than a straight decrease in the number of machines, an argument that could be seized upon by powerful critics of the talks in the US Congress.
Diplomats familiar with the talks told AP there is no guarantee that the proposal can be finalised into an agreement.
According to the diplomats, the proposal could leave most of Iran's nearly 10,000 centrifuges in place but reconfigure them to reduce the amount of enriched uranium they produce.
One of the diplomats said the deal could include other limitations to ensure that Tehran's programme is kept in check.
For one, Iran would be allowed to store only a specific amount of uranium gas, which is fed into centrifuges for enrichment. The amount of gas would depend on the number of centrifuges it keeps.
Secondly, Iran would commit to shipping out most of the enriched uranium it produces, leaving it without enough to make a bomb. Iran denies any interest in nuclear weapons and says its programme is for peaceful purposes such as nuclear power and medical technology.
Iran offered last year to reduce the output of its centrifuges if it could keep most of them going. That was rejected back then by the US and its five negotiating partners. But both sides are under increasing pressure ahead of two deadlines: to agree on main points by late March, and to reach a comprehensive deal by June 30.
The latest negotiations have been extended twice, strengthening scepticism from both hardliners in Iran and critics in the US Congress.
Failure this time could result in a push for new sanctions by influential US legislators, a move that some Iranian officials warn would scuttle any future diplomatic attempts to end the stand-off.
The talks increasingly have become a dialogue between Washington and Tehran. Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany are also at the table but recognise that the US and Iran stand to gain - or lose - the most.
Iran has withstood a decade of diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at reducing its programme. Washington demanded a year ago that Tehran reduce the number of operating centrifuges from nearly 10,000 to fewer than 2,000. That would increase the time it would need to make enough weapons-grade uranium from a few months to a year or more.
By November, when the talks were extended, diplomats said the US and its partners were ready to accept as many as 4,500 but Iran had not significantly budged.
The possible compromise was revealed ahead of the next negotiating round on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that starts on Friday.
Centrifuges are set up in series - called cascades - to spin uranium gas to increasingly higher concentrations of enriched uranium. The diplomats said one possibility being discussed is changing their configuration to reduce the amount of enriched uranium produced at the tail end of each cascade.
Iran could try to re-pipe the cascades into their original setup. But that could take months, and such attempts would be quickly reported by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, which would monitor Iran's compliance with any deal.