What it will take for Iran nuclear talks to succeed

By Ariane Tabatabai | December 18, 2014

Until November 23rd, the Iranian negotiators at the country’s nuclear talks with six foreign powers seemed cautiously optimistic that a deal was within reach. For one year, the two sides had been working towards a comprehensive agreement that would curtail Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions. Their deadline for reaching a conclusion was the next day, though, and by then, what many on both sides had thought was a done deal turned out not to be done at all. Instead the negotiation deadline was extended until June 30, 2015, and meetings resumed in Geneva this week. The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), agreed in November, 2013 and outlining the terms of negotiation, will stay in place for another seven months.

It would be easy to interpret the deadline extension as bad news. In fact, though, the way in which it has been handled by both sides suggests that there is yet hope. The next months will be challenging, but there is a strong chance a deal will still get done.

What went wrong? In the weeks leading up to November 24th, various factions and stakeholders increased their pressure on the negotiators to abandon making a deal. In the United States, some raised questions regarding Iran's compliance with the terms of the interim agreement. In Tehran, some critics urged Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's team not to give up the nation's nuclear achievements. Meanwhile, Israel and Saudi Arabia continued to voice their concerns, advocating for "no deal" rather than a "bad one." As the deal came apart, many began to speculate, some wondering if the failure could be linked to the Saudi foreign minister having appeared in Vienna on November 23rd to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Neither side confirmed or denied this theory, which remains just that.

Subtle successes. Regardless of what went wrong, the way the missed deadline was handled provides evidence that the talks may yet succeed. It is important to note the positive developments in Vienna. One concern was that the parties would start a blame game, pointing fingers at each other, but it didn’t happen. On the contrary, the parties highlighted the progress made and concluded on a civil note. Kerry praised his Iranian counterpart and thanked him. Zarif, for his part, issued a fairly positive joint statement with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. This shows that both sides are still committed to the process and want a deal. The lack of belligerent rhetorical exchange between Iran and the United States in particular is now taken for granted, but it's no small matter. It is evidence of some level of trust among the negotiators.

The way the talks concluded is also evidence of greater coordination and unity among the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany). Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, viewed as the "Uncle Scrooge" of the talks, generally pessimistic and distrustful of the Iranian side, who a year ago almost derailed the negotiations leading to the interim deal, has been fairly positive about the process  (link in French). This shows that the United States has done a better job communicating with the various teams than it had been doing a year ago. It also shows an understanding that the stakes are too high to let the opportunity slip between the parties' hands.

A number of promising events in Iran are also worth highlighting. Following the extension, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the highest authority in the country, reiterated (link in Persian) his support for the negotiations and shut down the critics, who had been increasingly vocal in the weeks leading to the November deadline. "For the same reason we were not opposed to the essence of the negotiations, we are also not opposed to their extension. Of course, we accept any just and rational agreement," he said. Likewise he defended the negotiating team, noting its "diligence, seriousness, strength, and rationality." The delegation, he said to critics, "has stood up in the face of pressuring discourse." To drive the point home, Khamenei's adviser, Aliakbar Velayati, echoed the position (link in Persian), asserting that the Supreme Leader has supported the process itself as well as its extension, and that therefore, given that he has the final say on all matters, “there should no longer be any statement contrary to this position." Velayati also highlighted that the Iranian delegation has not crossed any of the leader's “red lines,” of which the key ones were the requirement that the nuclear program, including research and development, continue; that the enrichment facility in Fordow be maintained; and that Iran eventually acquire the ability to produce 190,000 separative work units (SWU). As such, contrary to the conventional wisdom in Washington, the generally conservative Khamenei has in fact acted as a moderating agent in this process. It is up to the government of President Hassan Rouhani to seize the momentum and use it as a vehicle to quiet down critics and continue the process, and ultimately sell a deal back home.

Would-be dealbreakers.  Despite these reasons to be optimistic, the talks could still fail. The length of the extension came as a surprise to many observers. Seven months is an awfully long time, providing room for hardliners on both sides to maneuver and potentially derail the talks. This is why Zarif pushed to set a clear deadline.

In Washington, the new Congress will take over in January, which may be problematic given that many members are already pushing for more sanctions and hawkish lobbies are preparing to advocate for more pressure. Kerry alluded to this in his answer to a question raised by the press following his November 24th statement, when he asked Congress to allow the US delegation to preserve "the equilibrium for a few months to be able to proceed without sending messages that might be misinterpreted and cause miscalculation." Yet some members of Congress continue to press their concerns over the extension. Some believe that it is to Tehran's advantage, giving it what it wants without any concessions.

It is not actually true that Iran has made no concessions to get to this point—it had already undertaken to suspend some of its key activities under the joint plan, and has agreed to even more as of November 24th. Nevertheless, members of Congress in favor of increasing sanctions sought to legitimize their position by inviting a panel of arms control and Middle East experts who are generally skeptical of Iran for a hearing. But among the invitees, neither the head of the Institute for Science and International Security, David Albright, nor the president of United Against Nuclear Iran, Gary Samore, endorsed more sanctions, noting that they would produce the opposite effect from what Congress is seeking, which is to strengthen the United States' hand in the negotiations. They are right. More sanctions would undermine the legitimacy of the process in Iran, potentially increasing the pressure on the negotiating team to the point that it would have to withdraw from the talks altogether. Iran’s international reputation would also gain from more sanctions, which would show it to be a victim of Washington's lack of good faith.

Moreover, the argument that the JPOA was good for Iran and bad for the United States is not founded on facts. The limited sanctions relief that Tehran is receiving has done little to lift the domestic economy, which to the extent that it is doing somewhat better than it was two years ago (before Rouhani’s election), has more to do with better management. In exchange for this limited sanctions relief and ability to gain access to its frozen assets, Tehran has effectively suspended many key sensitive activities and allowed more monitoring and verification. It has accepted caps on enrichment and enriched uranium stockpiles, as well as caps on advances at several key facilities (including the Fordow and Natanz fuel enrichment facilities and the Arak heavy water reactor).

Standing up to domestic pressure. For both parties, striking a deal by November 24 would have been optimal. Observers, including myself, warned that an extension could be detrimental to the process, given vocal criticism in Tehran and Washington. But the extension is not a bad outcome. It serves all parties' purposes, while ensuring that the diplomatic channel remains open for a peaceful resolution, rather than yet another conflict in the Middle East, which could be catastrophic for the already volatile region. Extending the talks keeps Iran's nuclear activities capped, while allowing for more comprehensive monitoring. It also allows Tehran to continue to gain some sanctions relief. And, important, it allows the two parties to continue to engage with each other and overcome more than 35 years of mistrust.

In the next seven months, the key challenge will be to manage domestic audiences on both sides. While Rouhani and his delegation are strengthened by Khamenei's support, the Obama administration is going to be challenged by the new Congress. This could prove detrimental to the talks. The hearing organized by Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, on December 3, showed the eagerness of some members of Congress to continue to exercise pressure on Tehran.

It is important for critics of the talks to note the steps taken by Iran, and what they mean. Tehran has agreed to cap its centrifuge research and development activities, which is a significant step. It has agreed to limit what it does with several advanced centrifuges, including the IR-6, the IR-5, and the IR-2M, and agreed not to install the IR-8 at the Natanz pilot plant. These are important confidence-building measures, which remove the possibility that misunderstandings and miscalculations will derail the talks. They also show that Iran is ready to take measures that could be controversial at home. And they give evidence of the flexibility of Khamenei's red lines, which had been viewed in Washington as rigid and potentially detrimental to the negotiations.

So far, both the Supreme Leader and the Iranian people have supported the talks. Likewise, in the United States, the administration has been able to manage pressure from hardliners. But time is limited. Another extension of the JPOA seems highly unlikely and problematic for both parties beyond June 2015. In Washington, Congress won’t want any further extension to talks that it sees as good for Iran and bad for the United States. In Iran, Rouhani still enjoys some level of support, but another extension of the talks that keeps Tehran’s nuclear program suspended without tangible progress on sanctions wouldn’t help him. The next seven months are therefore decisive. More sanctions would close a window of opportunity and delegitimize the process altogether. 

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