A Primer on the Iranian nuclear talks, by yours truly

If you’re trying to get up to speed on the Iran nuclear talks, which entered their third round today in Vienna, I’ve tried to hit all the main points in this new piece at Lobe Log. I think the final section is the most important:

Why are the talks important?

A negotiated settlement that allows Iran a limited enrichment capacity with significant inspections and verification requirements is, as Einhorn writes, “not ideal, but better than the alternatives.” If these talks fail, there will be a push for tougher sanctions on Iran, but it is unclear how much more pressure sanctions can bring to bear, and it is even less clear that the P5+1 will hold together to implement tougher sanctions. If harsher sanctions don’t, or can’t, work then limited military action against Iran’s nuclear sites could follow, though experts have explained why that’s the least favorable option. Such an act would end all possibility of negotiations and likely push the Iranians to kick nuclear inspectors out of the country and race toward building a weapon. Even if limited strikes could temporarily slow Iran’s progress toward a weapon in the event that it actually chose to make one, they cannot eliminate the related technical knowledge and expertise that Iran has developed.

These talks will also have longer term implications, particularly in terms of setting a precedent for future such agreements and in terms of Iran’s ability to incorporate itself into the wider international community.

There’s obviously a lot more that can be said than can be fit into a ~1600 word primer (you could write that much and more just about how a potential deal could impact Iran’s place in the world). One of the real keys to the process falls outside the scope of the talks themselves, and that’s the ability of the negotiators to sell whatever deal they reach, should they reach one, back home. Iran’s political system is so fragmented and so at odds internally that it’s going to be fascinating to watch what Khamenei does and how the Rouhani-IRGC tug of war plays out; it could have real meaning for other regional crises, especially Syria, if the IRGC were, for example, to agree to go along with a nuclear deal in exchange for a freer hand from Khamenei in other matters. And on the other side, the big hurdle is obviously going to be the US Senate. This is a body that was ready to torpedo even the temporary JPOA because it couldn’t countenance even a small amount of sanctions relief and only pulled back after being publicly shamed by the White House. They’re not going to go gently into a long-term deal.

I am optimistic that a deal will be reached but pessimistic that it can be reached in the initial six-month timeframe envisioned by the Joint Plan of Action, just because it seems like in these kinds of situations the pressure of a firm deadline (the JPOA allows for another six month extension if needed, making its first deadline not really that firm) really seems to get things moving. On the other hand, if blowing past the midterms here is going to make it harder to get the Senate to consent to a final deal, then there is substantial incentive to push to be done with this over the summer.


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