Iran talks approach crucial deadline to, ah, agree to keep talking, probably

So we’re officially less than a week away from the November 24 deadline for the Iran-P5+1 nuclear talks to bear some fruit, and the final round of talks before that deadline has begun in Vienna, so I thought it might be worth summing up where things stand right now and looking at what to expect by the deadline.

Just when it looked like there was some growing momentum toward a deal, Secretary of State John Kerry, EU negotiator Catherine Ashton, and Iranian FM Javad Zarif met last week in Oman to iron out some of the remaining wrinkles in advance of this final big session and accomplished, well, nothing, or maybe less than nothing. I mean, at least before they met things were looking positive, but the results of their Oman dialogue were portrayed so negatively that we’re back in “there’s no way a deal can get done by November 24” territory.

But I do think that there’s been progress, in the sense that the main obstacle to a deal seems to have changed. Here it’s worth noting the four main components to a theoretical comprehensive framework: the status of Iran’s planned heavy-water Arak reactor (which could in theory offer Iran a “plutonium pathway” to a nuclear bomb), the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment program (the “uranium pathway” to a bomb), the size and scope of the international monitoring and verification system that Iran will have to accept, and the timing of sanctions relief. I think two of these issues have either been solved or are well on their way to being solved:

  • Though there are reports that Arak is back on the table as an issue, I very much suspect that it is an internal P5+1 issue rather than a P5+1-Iran issue. The Iranians have been pretty quiet about Arak, and even if they really are after a nuclear bomb Arak makes little sense as a vector. In order to develop a plutonium bomb the Iranians would need to build a facility to reprocess the spent fuel from Arak into weapons-grade material, and it would be very hard for them to do this without somebody noticing.
  • Iran’s uranium enrichment program has been the big obstacle throughout the talks, but it seems like the recently floated compromise whereby Russia would secure Iran’s stockpiled low-enriched uranium (LEU) and convert it into reactor fuel (which would mean that Iran could operate a higher number of enrichment centrifuges without increasing their overall capacity to build a uranium bomb) may have been a real breakthrough on that front. Russia just concluded a new deal with Tehran to build at least two and as many as eight new civilian power plants in Iran, and crucially that deal requires Iran to purchase their fuel from Russia rather than enriching it themselves. This reduces Iran’s need for LEU and means that the potentially dangerous (as a proliferation risk) spent fuel goes back to Russia for reprocessing rather than staying in Iran.

I agree in large part with what François Nicoullaud wrote for LobeLog 10 days ago, and what Gareth Porter wrote last week, that the issue now is that the two sides cannot agree on the timetable for sanctions relief or the mechanism by which that relief will be provided. This is speculative, but you can see a noticeable shift in the complaints of Iranian hardliners over the past couple of weeks. They seem to have stopped expressing concerns that the U.S. was trying to stifle Iran’s technological development by capping their enrichment program and have started focusing on sanctions relief as their main grievance. One complaint, not without merit but clearly without any understanding of the political climate in Washington, is that the U.S. is talking about “suspending” sanctions, which can be done by executive action, rather than “lifting” them, which requires Congressional action. Barack Obama has good reason for preferring the suspension route; for one thing, suspended sanctions are easier to put back into place if Iran transgresses, and for another thing, Congress is absolutely prepared to strangle this deal if it’s given the chance. This is going to be a bit of a test for Hassan Rouhani’s ability to maneuver within the Iranian political system, because even if he wanted to lift the sanctions altogether (though he probably doesn’t), there’s simply no way Obama would be able to get this Congress to go along with it.

Another, newer, issue is that the Iranians want UN Security Council sanctions lifted immediately (the talks have been focused on EU and U.S. unilateral sanctions). Iran objects to the fact that its “nuclear file” is with the Security Council, suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program is a security threat, and wants it returned to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), just like every other country’s nuclear file. The UNSC sanctions give legal legitimacy to the U.S. and EU sanctions, so Iran wants them gone, but they’re also important leverage for ensuring that Iran complies with the IAEA’s inspections work, so the P5+1 are going to insist they stay in place. They’re offering Iran a plan that would lift EU and Asian sanctions immediately, and suspend some U.S. sanctions right away (this, by the way, is potentially another sticking point, with Iran wanting the most painful sanctions — on its banking sector — dealt with right away and the U.S. hoping to keep those sanctions in place to encourage compliance), but phase in the lifting of the UN sanctions and Congressional action on the U.S. sanctions until Iran has demonstrated its compliance with the agreement (and, presumably, until there’s a more favorable political climate for lifting sanctions in Washington). The timeframe for all of this sanctions relief (and consequently the length of time that Iran has to put up with intrusive inspections and scrutiny) is probably also a sticking point; the Iranians want this all to be over and done with in 2-3 years, while the P5+1 are looking at 2 decades or so. On this, the two sides may be able to just split the difference.

The other potential sticking point is inspections, but this is probably less about the what the IAEA will need to do to verify Iran’s nuclear behavior moving forward than it is about Iranian objections to the IAEA’s investigations into “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of its past nuclear efforts. The IAEA has been tasked with looking into whether or not Iran had an active nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, in part because the progress it made then could affect calculations about how quickly it could build a bomb now, and in part just to catch Iran in a lie about its nuclear intentions for whatever reason. Yousaf Butt wrote a pretty unflattering profile of the IAEA’s efforts in this regard last week at National Interest. The bottom line is that the IAEA is poorly equipped to investigate the non-nuclear aspects (things like detonators, miniaturization technology, delivery systems, many of which may have perfectly valid civilian applications) of any alleged nuclear weapons program, and Iran is complicating things by blocking the few genuine weapons experts the IAEA does have because of a blanket ban it has placed on IAEA inspectors from Western nations. Consequently the IAEA is relying to a disturbing degree on information provided to it by intel agencies and third-party groups who are hostile to Iran, even when big chunks of that information proves to be demonstrably fabricated. The PMD issue feeds back into the sanctions debate since the P5+1 see UN sanctions as a key piece of leverage compelling Iran to comply with the IAEA, but if the IAEA isn’t up to the task they’ve been given, you can see where that might be a problem.

One final sticking point is the politics of a deal, both within the P5+1 coalition and domestically for the Iranians and the P5+1, especially the Americans. Holding the coalition together could prove difficult at the last minute, but its the need for a deal to pacify U.S. and Iranian hardliners who are inclined to automatically reject any engagement with the other country and who, in the case of the U.S., are being egged on by strong Israeli and Saudi sentiments against a deal. These political considerations obviously require a deal that can be successfully spun as a victory on both sides of the talks, so compromise is definitely paramount here.

From the Iranian perspective, the P5+1 has been completely unreasonable throughout this negotiating process. For one thing, both of the post-revolution leaders of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, have formally declared that WMD are inconsistent with Islamic principles. While Westerners look at statements like that and see a world leader declaring a policy that could easily be reversed later on, for the Iranians these declarations carry the full force of the law, and while Khamenei or a future Supreme Leader could modify them at some point, to outright “repeal” or contradict them would shake Iran’s political system to the core. Meanwhile, there is a palpable sense in the Iranian establishment that the P5+1 countries (especially the U.S.) are going to double-cross Iran at some point. Iran has deep-seated historical reasons for not trusting any of the P5+1 (particularly Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.), but even in the context of these nuclear talks the Iranians can argue that they made significant concessions in last November’s Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) yet received less than they believed they would get out of that deal. So they’re pretty motivated to take a firm line and try to make sure they’re not getting screwed under the terms of a final deal.

The final push for a deal, or at least the framework of a deal, is important for many reasons. The window for a deal to be reached is probably going to close when Obama leaves office, as he’ll most likely be succeeded by a president who is inclined to be or forced to be more hawkish on Iran. A completed deal could be the first step toward a total reworking of the U.S.-Iran relationship and of the Middle East and the international community in general as Iran takes its first steps toward global integration since 1979, and could bring about the ascendance of a more moderate, maybe even reformist, political landscape within Iran. On the other hand, the failure to reach a deal will boost Iranian hardliners’ political fortunes heading into next year’s parliamentary elections and the presidential election, where they will be gunning to unseat Rouhani, in 2017.

Also, it should go without saying (though it often doesn’t) that a negotiated settlement like this offers the only path toward an Iran that is verifiably nuclear-weapons free. If the talks break down, the Iranians could, in theory, withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and race toward a bomb, or, more likely, just boot out the IAEA inspectors and let the rest of the world guess as to its intentions and actions. It’s likely that more sanctions would then be levied against Iran, which has serious humanitarian ramifications, and that we’d come closer to a military conflict over their program, which could at best delay, but not prevent, Iran from developing a nuclear weapon if it were to go that route after all (indeed, a U.S. bombing campaign could actually encourage Iran to pursue a weapon after all). Iran would counter new sanctions with a global PR campaign arguing that it was America’s unfairness and intransigence that killed the chance for a deal, so Iran should not be punished for the talks’ failure, and they might be able to make some real dents in the international sanctions regime with that tactic. Then there’s also the problem of ISIS, and the continued instability in Afghanistan, two geopolitical crises where U.S. and Iranian interests are really quite aligned at the moment. While working too closely with Iran against ISIS could actually be counterproductive, in the sense that the U.S. cannot afford to be seen by Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis as being biased toward the Shiʿa (or to be working on behalf of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad), it will obviously be easier to solve both of these problems if the Iranians are working with the U.S. None of this means that a deal must be concluded by Monday, but there at least needs to be some positive development that justifies continued negotiations or else things could very quickly fall apart.

The approach of the November 24 deadline has brought with it some unusual diplomacy from both Washington and Tehran. Earlier this month it was revealed that Obama had sent a letter to Khamenei in an attempt to convince him that a successful nuclear deal would open the door to much wider engagement between the U.S. and Iran. The letter serves a couple of purposes, in that it’s a shot at establishing some sort of direct contact between the two leaders, but its release is also an attempt to show the rest of the world that the U.S. has been reasonable throughout the process and to undermine any Iranian argument that it was America that caused the talks to fail (if they fail). Meanwhile, Khamenei, or whoever runs his Twitter account, tweeted this helpful list of reasons why “Ayatollah Khamenei support[s] the nuclear talks”:

It’s not very warm and fuzzy toward the U.S., and it was followed up a couple of days later with a series of tweets attacking the U.S. for dropping atomic bombs on Japan, for going along as Israel developed nuclear weapons, etc., but it shows that the Supreme Leader’s office recognizes the value in Khamenei at least appearing to support the talks. That in itself is a positive sign.

So what’s going to happen by Monday? At this point it’s probable that the talks and the JPOA framework will be extended again. “Hints” about that possibility have been floated for several days now. Even under the rosiest of scenarios there’s likely not enough time left before Monday to work out all the technical details that will go into a final agreement. But I think audiences on both sides of the talks are going to want to at least hear that some substantial progress has been made toward a deal, or else an extension will look an awful lot like a failure. There will be an understandable reluctance from both the U.S. and Iranian sides to just walk away in the absence of any progress, because that really will set relations back and because the regional situation means that the U.S. and Iran need each other right now (Iran needs the U.S. to keep striking ISIS, the U.S. needs Iran to keep Baghdad in line and ideally to help nudge Assad out when the time comes), but simply inviting another 3 or so months of the same pointless back and forth isn’t going to be good for anybody. While any country engaged in negotiations like this is going to be reluctant to agree to any conditions until the final deal is in place, this would be a good time for the P5+1 and Iran to “bank” whatever agreements they have made in principle to set up clear momentum for what is hopefully the final (or final final) push to an agreement.

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