Icebergs Ahead

The interim nuclear deal with Iran was huge -- but a permanent solution is going to be much, much harder to reach.


The temporary deal to halt or roll back parts of Iran’s nuclear program in return for modest sanctions relief is an impressive, if perishable, success for U.S.-led diplomacy. But the negotiations among Iran, the United States, and five other world powers to find a comprehensive solution on Iran’s nuclear program, which begin Feb. 18 in Vienna, will face far greater challenges. The six months allowed for negotiations by the interim agreement might not be enough to overcome Iran’s hardliners and sway skeptics on Capitol Hill, all while maintaining the unity of the countries involved in talks: the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany (also known as the P-5+1).

"We don’t in any way underestimate how difficult the comprehensive solution will be," said a senior U.S. official. Gary Samore, a Harvard researcher and the top White House nonproliferation expert until last year, similarly said in an interview, "The chances of negotiating a comprehensive solution, particularly in the next six months, are very low." President Obama himself has conceded that the odds of a successful outcome are not more than "50-50." On the eve of the negotiations, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who publicly supports them, said, "I am not optimistic about the talks, and they will reach nowhere."

"The [Obama] administration is prepared for that possibility," said Robert Einhorn, a Brookings Institution scholar who served as the State Department special advisor for nonproliferation until last May. "It has pretty definite standards for what constitutes a good agreement." The obstacles to a permanent deal come in many forms.

Tough Terms and Strict Verification. Obama’s negotiators are not revealing their opening positions for the talks, but there are strong indications they will seek the permanent shutdown of most of Iran’s nuclear activities, paired with unprecedented inspections and other verification steps. The Iranians publicly reject the suggestion that key parts of their program might be terminated.

"Our goal," said one senior U.S. official, "is to have a very long timeline from a decision to actually being able to make enough enriched uranium for a weapon." Negotiators had been taken aback by how lax Iranian interpretations of some mandates in the interim deal were when they initially discussed implementation, and many more such mandates would undoubtedly flow from a permanent agreement. The impending demands could well induce a case of sticker shock in Tehran, which portrays its atomic work as an international right and source of national pride.

U.S. officials say they have not acceded to Iran’s "right" to enrich, but they and their partners acknowledge that Iran might be allowed to do limited nuclear fuel work. The Joint Plan of Action, as the interim deal is known, says vaguely that Iran’s future uranium enrichment will fall within "mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs." Exactly what that means will be the subject of hard bargaining. It is too soon to know whether Iran would agree to concentrate uranium enrichment in one location — the aboveground plant at Natanz — and close its underground Fordo site. The questions of how much enrichment can continue, the size of uranium stockpiles, and the curbs on upgrading centrifuge technology will all be argued at length. Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak, which U.S. policymakers see as a second path to a nuclear-weapons capacity, via plutonium, has long been a stumbling block. It is also a target for closure, which Iran has previously refused to consider.

U.S. officials carried on "extensive discussions" with outside experts over several months late last year about what a comprehensive deal should look like, said David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). ISIS subsequently issued a report contending that Iran should not retain more than 4,000 centrifuges, meaning 15,000 would have to be removed. That would leave a minimum "breakout time" of six months. Asked last month by CNN whether any centrifuges could be destroyed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said simply, "No, no, not at all."

The duration of an accord will also be contentious. Iran has publicly spoken of three to five years — and, in private, of up to ten, but is hesitant to concede so much. U.S. officials have informally discussed 20 years of tight restraints, which would inevitably shrink Iran’s pool of nuclear scientists and technicians. Such a span of time would also give credence to Iran’s assertion that its aims are peaceful, and possibly restore international confidence that has been sapped by Iran’s past concealment of nuclear sites and its non-compliance with reporting required in safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, and with resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.

Then there’s the question of persuading Iran to accept intrusive monitoring on a scale it has never experienced. For the temporary deal, the IAEA is doubling its inspectors in Iran and opening a field office there. Negotiators for a permanent deal are almost certain to demand more intense inspections and greater use of cameras and other checks in facilities for fabricating nuclear fuel and machinery, for conducting research and development (R&D), and for mining and milling uranium.

Future verification, U.S. officials have said, would also entail investigating Iran’s earlier nuclear operations, including any with military dimensions. According to ISIS, a permenant agreement must seek to identify the origin and amounts of raw materials and parts, as well as imports and exports. IAEA inspectors for years have wanted to scrutinize alleged weapons work at Iran’s Parchin military base, from which they have been barred. Iran is suspected of having tested triggers there capable of an implosion-type nuclear detonation.

Iran’s stonewalling on such unresolved issues has stymied the IAEA from compiling a full narrative of its nuclear program. "Some questions from the past have implications for the future," said Einhorn, adding, "Governments aren’t very good at confessing past sins."

Iranian Politics. Much of what the Iranian regime can or cannot do to seek a deal is shaped by bitter domestic divisions. The reformist Rouhani has a mandate for making compromises to reach a comprehensive deal. Iranians, tired of years of U.S. and international sanctions, gave negotiators returning to Tehran after signing the interim deal a roaring welcome in the streets. Khamenei has spoken of showing "heroic leniency" — flexibility — toward the West on the nuclear dispute. The interim deal could not have happened without his nod.

But Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are in a delicate position: They are trying to ease Iran’s economic squeeze while not tempting hard-liners to launch a full-on challenge on the nuclear diplomacy and other issues. The conservatives, still smarting from their defeat by Rouhani in elections last June, control the military, security services, and judiciary. There are divisions among them on how far concessions by Rouhani and Zarif can go.

Khamenei is presiding over these opposing political camps, and he seems well positioned for either the talks’ success (taking some credit) or failure (blaming the West or allowing Rouhani and Zarif to own the disappointment).

As for Rouhani, he vowed "serious will" to settle the nuclear dispute in his January speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But he also warned that Iran will neither abandon peaceful nuclear technology nor "accept any obstacles to its scientific progress."

Such remarks need to be read with the expectation that both sides will start the talks with maximalist positions. Much of the talk from Tehran will be intended primarily for domestic ears. "We shouldn’t pay too much heed to rhetoric at home in Iran. That’s what they need to say to sell any deal," reasons a European official who is knowledgeable on the negotiations.

American Politics. Similarly, Obama is bound by political fights at home. Any long-term nuclear deal with Iran will have to run a political gauntlet on Capitol Hill, where mistrust of Iran has only grown ever since the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis following Iran’s revolution. "Moving toward a final agreement, the internal politics of the United States will be critical," said the European official.

A warning flare of sorts has gone up in the form of an Iran sanctions bill introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) after the interim deal was reached. For now, the administration has gotten a reprieve. White House opposition has peeled off some Senate Democratic support. Menendez changed course on Feb. 6 and asked that no vote take place for now. An influential lobby supporting the bill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, did likewise.

The episode nonetheless is a reminder of political uncertainties on the American side of the nuclear talks.

Fifty-nine senators have signed on as sponsors of the bill, which backers term a "diplomatic insurance policy" to strengthen Washington’s hand in negotiations. It would create a framework for new sanctions — which could be temporarily waived by the president — unless Iran met certain conditions, including on non-nuclear issues like terrorism and missile tests. It also calls on the United States to support Israel if it strikes Iranian nuclear sites in "legitimate self-defense." Einhorn calls some of its provisions "poison pills."

The proposal ran head-on into the White House strategy to wall off the nuclear talks from the other disputes with Iran, which have inspired their own sanctions. The interim deal bars new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran during its six months in force. Administration officials charged that new sanctions would derail the talks and, as one put it, "undermine the sanctions regime that we have built so meticulously over the course of the last several years." Similarly, Zarif told journalist Robin Wright that talks are "dead" if new sanctions materialize. Obama, who is said to be more engaged in internal Iran discussions than he has been in the nuclear dispute with North Korea, vowed to veto the bill if it reaches him.

Current and former officials insist that ample leverage with Iran already exists. "Iran is still facing crippling sanctions. Iran already has a tremendous incentive to negotiate seriously," said Einhorn.

Yet the lead U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks, Wendy Sherman, assured edgy senators on Feb. 4, "We have made it clear to Iran that, if it fails to live up to its commitments, or if we are unable to reach agreement on a comprehensive solution, we would ask the Congress to ramp up new sanctions." No doubt, the administration could get them. Both Republicans and Democrats who are wary of the Iran talks will be watching for them to break down — and create a new opening to act.

P-5+1 Unity. Holding together the six countries that are bargaining with Iran will require constant attention. Russia and China were reluctant converts to sanctioning Iran for its intransigence, and they would probably accept looser nuclear restrictions on Iran than others in the group. Some European states — with stronger trade and cultural ties to Iran than the United States has — found the oil embargo and the severing of most financial dealings with Iran painful. "There may be differences about how to deal with the Iranians," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Risks to P-5+1 concord have already emerged, as European and Russian executives flock to Tehran to get in line for business opportunities if nuclear sanctions end. More than 100 French executives came to Iran in early February — the most high-ranking private-sector group to visit since the 1979 revolution. The White House reacted sharply to Russian discussions with Iran about a goods-for-oil swap, saying it would violate sanctions laws and the interim agreement. Russia’s Lukoil is also talking with Iran about returning if sanctions are lifted, though no deals have been announced.

U.S. policymakers, meanwhile, have maintained chorus-like synchronicity in insisting that "Iran is not open for business." In the United States, according to a spokesman at the Treasury Department, "We have not seen a surge of new license requests for business involving Iran."

The Treasury Department official in charge of Iran sanctions, David S. Cohen, recently traveled to Austria, Italy, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates with the message that the general array of Iran sanctions stays in place, the current relaxation is reversible, and enforcement remains aggressive. On Feb. 6, the Treasury Department slapped penalties on nearly three dozen companies and individuals in Europe and the Middle East for allegedly assisting Iran on nuclear or missile supplies or support for terrorism. With France’s president by his side on Feb. 11, Obama said of firms violating sanctions laws, "We will come down on them like a ton of bricks."

European governments are also watching for sanctions erosion. "We can’t prevent European companies from going to Tehran and prospecting for new business," explained the European official. "But we don’t want to signal to parties that sanctions are being chipped away…. The unity represented by the P-5+1 is quite remarkable."

Remarkable, yes, but reaching a comprehensive solution this year would rank as a marvel of modern diplomacy — and not only because it would mean the P-5+1 hadn’t fractured. In Iran, the United States, and elsewhere, skeptics are poised to jump in if they think too much is being conceded. "These negotiations take place in a fishbowl. There are people looking to rip this whole thing apart," cautions Kimball. It would be surprising if the private dialogue between Tehran and Washington that was used prior to the interim deal is not resumed.

Considering all the obstacles, six months look like a pretty pinched timeframe to nail down a permanent deal. Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, has already raised the possibility of extending the interim deal if the talks require more time. That deal allows for a six-month add-on if the participating countries in the talks agree — which would push the negotiating period to January of next year. Such deferrals would not sit well on Capitol Hill. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) worries about "a series of rolling, interim deals" during which the United States and its partners will "lose all leverage."

In the end, though, the biggest unknown is simply whether Iran’s leadership will accept a tight leash around its atomic ambitions. And doubts are in order. "All these issues are very difficult one by one, but collectively they reflect the more fundamental difference in national interests at play here," said Samore. "Iran wants to achieve a nuclear-weapons option, and we want to deny it that."

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