The Middle East Channel

The Road from Geneva

One of Israel’s greatest — if mistaken — fears about the historic Geneva agreement with Iran is that this short-term deal will harden into a long-term one, permitting Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure intact in perpetuity. Israel should know: As the Palestinian issue has demonstrated for the past 25 years, some interim deals can ...


One of Israel’s greatest — if mistaken — fears about the historic Geneva agreement with Iran is that this short-term deal will harden into a long-term one, permitting Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure intact in perpetuity. Israel should know: As the Palestinian issue has demonstrated for the past 25 years, some interim deals can be hard to turn into comprehensive ones. Indeed, the very phrase "final status" will resonate unpleasantly to those familiar with the intractable wrangling over issues like the status of Jerusalem and land swaps.

The agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program is worded carefully to preclude such an outcome. It will last for just six months and commits both parties "to conclude negotiating and commence implementing" a final deal within a year. But not only are the details of the endgame indeterminate, so too is the finality of the final status. 

For one thing, the endgame is clearer than it was — but still opaque. To understand this, we should divide the agreement into three phases.

First comes the six-month period of the interim deal itself. This is "renewable by mutual consent," though this, as I discuss below, would surely precipitate a new push for new sanctions.

Second is the "comprehensive agreement" during which Iran gets "a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures," and all sanctions are lifted. This is to last "for a period to be agreed upon" but Jofi Joseph, participant in talks with Iran and until recently the U.S. National Security Council’s (NSC) top Iran official, has suggested that Western powers may push for something "on the order of twenty or even thirty years." The agreement calls this the "final step," but it’s actually more like parole.

Finally, after this defined period — which will presumably also require that Iran comes clean on its alleged pre-2003 weapons program and demonstrates that no such work continues — "the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT." This implies that the "practical limits" of the comprehensive agreement will disappear. Iran will be free.

Negotiating the second of these phases, the comprehensive agreement, is the hard part. Iran has been granted a conditional right to enrich, however much the United States insists otherwise and Iran spins that it’s "inalienable." It gets to enrich within "mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon." This is an inventive compromise that allows both sides to come away claiming victory, but those "parameters" will be hotly debated.

Take "practical needs," for instance. Iran has in the past claimed it will build 10 to 20 nuclear power stations. Indeed, just as the Geneva agreement was being finalized, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced that it was now considering the construction of the second and third of these (after the Russian-built Bushehr). Western powers are unlikely to accept either the enrichment capacity or enriched uranium stockpile commensurate with such a program — it would involve an expansion of Iran’s present enrichment — and will instead ask that Iran import its fuel, as it does for Bushehr. 

How much enrichment is too much? Iran presently has over 15,000 centrifuges installed and over 10,000 kg of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent, with which it can "break out" — produce enough fuel for one bomb — in around two months. Western powers would want to expand that time to a year, at the very least. As Scott Kemp has explained in graph form, that would mean both centrifuge numbers and the uranium stockpile must fall to a fraction of their present levels: one option would be 2,000 centrifuges and 800 kg of enriched uranium, roughly what Iran possessed before 2008, and even fewer centrifuges if any were to be more efficient second-generation variants.

For those who wanted Iranian enrichment to stop altogether — including Israel, and many in the U.S. Congress — this will be as unacceptably large a program as it would be unacceptably small for Iranian hardliners. Iranian officials have frequently emphasized that their priority is on the principle of enrichment rather than the level and amount, and this long-held point of emphasis will constrain their rhetorical and bargaining options over the next six months. But the psychology of loss aversion makes it harder to accept huge cutbacks. For Iranians, the reference point for the nuclear program is 2013; for the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), it will be 2002. Bridging this gap will be the most time consuming aspect of the next six months’ diplomacy.

Once the comprehensive agreement expires — whether it lasts for years or decades — there will then be further haggling. The agreement says Iran "will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT." Iran is sure to argue that this means the removal of all limits, whereas Western powers will point out that many NPT members voluntarily accept restrictions on their programs, and that Iran should do so, too.

In addition to the deeply-buried Fordow enrichment plant, the status of Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak will be especially problematic: Iran will claim that its decision to forego reprocessing (necessary to separate plutonium from spent fuel) is a sufficient safeguard. Additionally, as Joseph noted, "Iran may argue that its continued operation during a CBM [interim] phase establishes a precedent for its permanent acceptance."

But the West will want Iran to dismantle the whole thing or — something alluded to in the Geneva agreement — convert it into a more proliferation resistant light water reactor (something that would effectively mean dismantling it and building a new facility). But if and when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declares with confidence that there are no military nuclear activities occurring in Iran, imposing these limits may prove impossible. Even if Iran did convert Arak into a light water reactor, it would theoretically have the right to build a heavy water reactor when these limits expire. This is not going to sit well with some in the P5+1, like France, which raised a storm on the issue of Arak in the first round of Geneva talks earlier in November. Some countries involved in negotiations, like Russia, may even see significant commercial opportunities in giving Iran more latitude, which could split the group further.

Finally, even if the two sides could find common ground on a final status, each side would face domestic political obstacles to a deal. There is disagreement within Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, around its authority over a permanent deal. The spokesper
son for the presiding board of the Majlis has argued that what is confirmed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn’t need to be confirmed by parliament, but others have protested this judgment and pointed out that article 77 of Iran’s constitution (covering international treaties, protocols, contracts, and agreements) requires parliamentary approval.

At the very least, the Majlis would have to ratify Iran’s Additional Protocol, an agreement between Iran and the IAEA that allows intrusive inspections that President Mohammad Khatami’s government signed in 2003 but later disavowed. Moreover, the interim agreement specifies that only "nuclear-related" sanctions will be lifted in the comprehensive agreement: Although these impose the greatest economic cost on Iran, many Iranian legislators may not have realized that a number of non-nuclear sanctions, pertaining to terrorism and human rights, will remain in place.

On the other side, the U.S. Congress has expressed bipartisan skepticism toward the interim deal, and many legislators seem to think, mistakenly, that it can or will lead to the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program. Given that the agreement is arguably the Obama administration’s most significant foreign policy achievement to date, and that new sanctions would explicitly violate its terms, President Barack Obama is certain to veto any sanctions bill that Congress passes.

Overturning a presidential veto on a foreign policy subject would require a two-thirds veto in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. However, this has not happened since Congress overturned sanctions imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 over apartheid in South Africa. Today, Obama would require just 34 Senators to remain loyal. But if a sanctions bill provides for conditional sanctions triggered after the six month interim period is up — as Robert Menendez, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has proposed — then a veto might meet with greater bipartisan resistance. As Michael Krepon notes, the lesson from Cold War arms control is that follow-on accords should be negotiated as quickly as possible.

More importantly, given that current sanctions involve not just 16 executive orders but also nine congressional acts, a comprehensive agreement would require that Congress pass new legislation. This, in turn, would require that it consent to whatever compromise Iran and the P5+1 arrive at on the other outstanding issues. Meanwhile, plenty of legislators are going to take issue with the fact that issues like Iran’s missile program have gone unaddressed, and will seek to impose unrealistic conditions onto the P5+1 that go beyond the terms of the roadmap agreed on Nov.  24.

The interim agreement has put Iran further from a nuclear weapon, demonstrated that the United States and Iran are capable of holding sustained and effective high-level talks, untied one of the greatest knots in the dispute — Iran’s claimed right to enrich — and established an ambitious timeline for resolving the dispute as a whole. It is an elegant diplomatic fix. But nearly all of the details are yet to be filled in, and even then the political hurdles to a final deal are daunting.

Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a PhD candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government. Follow Joshi on Twitter: @shashj.

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