GENEVA — Iran is expected to make an offer today to scale back its effort to enrich uranium, a move that a year ago would have been a significant concession to the West. But Iran's nuclear abilities have advanced so far since then that experts say it will take far more than that to assure the West that Tehran does not have the capacity to quickly produce a nuclear weapon.
With thousands of advanced centrifuges spinning and Iranian engineers working on a plant that will produce plutonium — which also can be used in a weapon — Iran's program presents a daunting challenge for negotiators determined to roll back its nuclear activities.
Both sides enter the nuclear talks that begin in Geneva today with inherent strengths and weaknesses. Iran walks in with a nuclear program that cannot easily be turned back, while the West has imposed economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
And if Iran is going to maintain the right to enrich uranium to even low levels, as it continues to insists it must, the West would surely demand highly intrusive inspections — far more than Iran has tolerated in the past. How these matters are resolved will go far in deciding the success or failure of the talks.
In 2003, Iran had a relative handful of relatively unsophisticated centrifuges. Today, it has at least 19,000, and 1,000 of those are highly advanced. Those have been installed but are not yet being used to enrich uranium.
That is more than enough, experts say, to transform low-enriched uranium from the 3 percent to 5 percent range to weapons grade in a few months — the so-called breakout that is unacceptable to the West and Israel.
"Iran can produce nuclear weapons using low-enriched uranium and a large number of centrifuge machines," said Gary Samore, a senior aide on nonproliferation on the National Security Council in President Barack Obama's first term.
The talks in Geneva are the first between Iran and the United States and five other world powers since the election of Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, who took office in August.