Laura Rozen is quoting a “senior State Department official” in Switzerland for the current round of Iran nuclear talks, who says “we can see a path forward here to get to an agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program by March 31. That sounds great, but maybe a little vague seeing as how that March 31 deadline is coming up fast and, really, the talks are still hanging on the same key issues that have dominated the talks for months now: the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, its ability to research more advanced centrifuge technology under the terms of the agreement, the level of Iran’s cooperation with IAEA inspectors, the duration of the agreement’s constraints, and the timetable for sanctions relief. We’ve been supposedly close to an agreement plenty of times over the past year, only to have the talks ultimately break down.
It’s possible, though, that this round of talks might be a little different. Past rounds of negotiations have operated under a series of self-imposed deadlines, and all they really managed to achieve was to demonstrate that self-imposed deadlines aren’t really deadlines at all, since they can always be extended without real cost. The last time the talks failed to meet their deadline was in November, when negotiators agreed to once again extend the deadline, but the ambiguous nature of that extension, combined with the inevitable Congressional attempt to break the talks up, seems to be causing its own drama right now. The November extension actually created two new deadlines, not one: a March something (initial reports said March 1, which later became March 24, and now seems to be March 31) deadline to reach a “political agreement” on the basic framework for a deal, and a July 1 deadline to fill in the technical details and produce a final document. But then it became clear that Congress was planning to act on some kind of legislation (either new sanctions against Iran or something that would put conditions on the Obama administration’s ability to accept and uphold a deal) that would seriously risk an Iranian walkout, and that it would most likely be able to muster a veto-proof majority for that legislation. Republican overreach alienated Democrats for a while, but there’s an April 14 vote scheduled on Bob Corker’s Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which includes constraints on the administration that could cause the Iranians to throw up their hands and walk away, and that veto-proof majority seems likely to materialize absent some major new development.
Where this is now impacting the talks is in terms of the two sides’ understanding of this nebulous March “framework” deadline. The New York Times earlier this week suggested that the Iranians are balking at American demands that the framework agreement include a specific, written document signed by the parties. The suggestion in the Times piece was that the Iranians are trying to pull a fast one by keeping things as vague as possible until the July 1 final deadline, but as Scott Lucas at EA Worldview noted, there’s nothing about that November 2014 extension that suggested that this March deadline would involve any firm written accord. It’s actually more accurate to argue that the Americans are changing the terms of that extension in the face of domestic political constraints, since the administration feels it would have a better chance to peel Democratic support from the Corker bill with a written accord in hand than with a verbal one. It remains to be seen if this disagreement is going to be a problem as the deadline approaches, but at any rate this March 31 deadline now looks like a real deadline, with potentially serious consequences if it isn’t met.
So with the element of outside pressure now adding to the urgency of this March deadline, the terms of a draft deal were circulated last week. There weren’t any real surprises: Iran cuts its operating centrifuges by 40%, the deal runs for 10 years and then begins to phase out over another 5-10 years, Iran gets some immediate relief from international sanctions while others will only come off gradually as Iran meets its obligations. The draft is getting some praise, even though nobody seems prepared to officially say that the draft actually reflects what the final deal might look like:
However, it appears that France has taken it upon itself to be the P5+1’s “bad cop,” as Al Jazeera puts it, publicly questioning the leniency of the deal being negotiated and making noises about not rushing to meet this March deadline. France was reportedly the last holdout on the Joint Plan of Action when it was negotiated in November 2013, almost scuttling the whole deal until Iran agreed to some additional restrictions on the Arak reactor and on its enrichment program, so maybe they’re doing the same thing here. Or maybe this is all theatrics produced by a country that wants to avoid angering Gulf plutocrats in the event a deal is reached (“hey, look, we held out as long as we could”).