Why Obama Needs an (Interim) Deal More Than Iran

It’s not his legacy. It’s Congress.


Iran’s biggest advantage as the nuclear talks approach a key Tuesday deadline is that the deadline isn’t actually much of a deadline at all.

Iran’s biggest advantage as the nuclear talks approach a key Tuesday deadline is that the deadline isn’t actually much of a deadline at all.

Under the terms of the current negotiations, Iran and six world powers set a goal of forging a framework agreement by late March, but they allowed themselves until June 30 to finalize a comprehensive deal. Because of that wiggle room, Iranian negotiators have refrained from making big concessions. But the American negotiators, who need a framework agreement to present to a skeptical Congress next month, don’t have time on their side.

No comparable political pressure exists for European or Iranian negotiators back home, according to analysts observing the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is creating a dynamic that plays right into Iran’s hands.

“Part of the reason [the Iranians] are playing such hardball right now is they know the U.S. can’t go back without anything,” said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council and an occasional contributor to Foreign Policy. “But if the Iranians walk away, it’s less of a problem for them, because the interim deal is still in place for another three months.”

Republicans, and a significant number of Democrats, have told the White House that an Iranian failure to spell out specific concessions by the March 31 deadline would be a clear sign that Tehran can’t be trusted and an indication that additional pressure through sanctions legislation is needed. The White House worries that any new bill would derail the talks and hopes that striking a deal this week will make it easier to persuade lawmakers to hold off on passing sanctions legislation.

However, the pressure to produce an agreement to show the U.S. Congress is making the P5+1 negotiating team look desperate for a deal, which has caused some European officials to question America’s emphasis on the March 31 deadline.

“Instead of dramatizing a so-called ‘deadline,’ let’s get the substance of a possible agreement right,” Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador in Washington, tweeted on Monday. “Much more important.”

Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said the Obama administration is undoubtedly facing “more pressure” than any other negotiating partner to reach an agreement, due to bipartisan skepticism in Congress.

However, she noted that Iran also has an incentive to prevent a deal from completely unwinding. “President [Hassan] Rouhani ran on a political platform promising economic recovery,” she said. “That’s only going to happen with significant sanctions relief.”

The prospect of an interim deal looked promising last week, as foreign ministers from the key powers headed for Lausanne to resolve outstanding differences. But those differences haven’t narrowed in recent days, and in some cases even appear to have widened. Tehran, for instance, wants any restrictions on Iran’s ability to carry out sensitive nuclear activities to last less than a decade. The United States and its Western partners want to maintain some restraints on the Iranian program for a longer period. (France, according to one report, wants a deal to be in effect for a minimum of 15 years.)

New questions also arose about Iran’s commitment to make good on a promise to ship its stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia, where it could be converted into fuel rods that could be used in Iranian nuclear reactors. But a senior member of the Iranian negotiating team, Abbas Araghchi, said Sunday that the removal of enriched uranium was not in the cards, according to Agence France-Presse.

“The export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our program, and we do not intend sending them abroad,” Araghchi said in comments carried by the French news agency. “There is no question of sending the stocks abroad.”

The State Department challenged Araghchi’s account, telling reporters in Lausanne Monday that the matter had not been settled. “The issue of how Iran’s stockpile would be disposed of had not yet been decided in the negotiating room, even tentatively,” according to a statement attributable to a senior State Department official, according to the New York Times.

“There is no question that disposition of their stockpile is essential to ensuring the program is exclusively peaceful,” according to the statement. “There are viable options that have been under discussion for months, including shipping out the stockpile, but resolution is still being discussed. The metric is ensuring the amount of material remaining as enriched material will only be what is necessary for a working stock and no more.”

There are other key sticking points, including the degree of research and development Iran would be able to conduct on advanced centrifuges, which would allow for a more efficient enrichment of uranium.

The United States and Iran appear to have been closing in on a deal that would allow a once-secret underground facility at Fordow to continue spinning about 3,000 centrifuges for the production of medical isotopes, but not for enriching uranium. The United States and its Western partners had initially wanted to destroy the facility, which was exposed by Western intelligence agencies in 2009 and which Iran used to produce its purest form of uranium. But in a compromise, the United States has agreed to allow it to continue under strict international monitoring to ensure it can’t be used to produce uranium.

The United States has also agreed to allow Iran to continue to operate the heavy-water plant at Arak. U.S. and European officials feared that Iran could use the facility to produce weapons-grade plutonium. But Iran has balked at calls for its destruction. Negotiators are trying to come up with a plan to reconfigure the facility so that it will be unable to produce weapons-grade fuel.

Araghchi also said that Iran expected to secure a commitment for the United States and other major powers to lift four rounds of U.N. sanctions that have prohibited Tehran’s acquisition of state-of-the-art technology required for its nuclear program, in addition to banning Tehran’s trade in ballistic missiles and other conventional weapons.

The United States and other key powers want to gradually lift U.N. sanctions, keeping in place a series of measures designed to prevent Iran from illicitly acquiring advanced technology that could be potentially diverted to a secret nuclear weapons program.

Jacqueline Shire, a former member of the U.N. panel of experts that monitored Iran’s compliance with U.N. sanctions, said that some of the outstanding issues could probably be overcome, including Iran’s apparent refusal to ship low-enriched uranium out of the country. The uranium can be blended with other materials that prevent it from being reprocessed into weapons-grade fuel.

But she said that Iran should not be given a free hand to purchase sensitive materials, like high-strength aluminum, that can be used in the production of nuclear weapons.

“Regarding the timing and pacing of U.N. sanctions relief, the key issue is whether sanctions will be lifted in a manner that allows Iran to shop internationally for the key parts and technologies it needs for Natanz, Arak, and its other nuclear facilities,” Shire told FP. “I don’t want to see Iran shopping for those items anytime soon.”

Shire noted that such purchases are currently barred under existing U.N. Security Council resolutions, which, she said, should remain in place “until Iran satisfies the international community, including U.N. member states and the International Atomic Energy Agency, that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.”

In 2011, the IAEA issued a report expressing concerns about alleged efforts by the Iranian military to develop a plan for placing a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, and to conduct research into the detonation of a nuclear explosive. Iran, which has insisted for years that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, has denied the allegations. But diplomats say Tehran has resisted demands by the United States and other big powers to come clean on its past activities as part of a final nuclear deal.

The United States and Iran appeared in recent weeks to be converging on the need for a one-year “breakout period,” the time Iran would require to develop a nuclear weapon if it decided to breach the nuclear pact. Last week, Western diplomats said that Iran would be allowed to operate up to 6,000 centrifuges to produce low-enriched uranium for its nuclear power and medical research plants. But Olli Heinonen, the former head of safeguards at the IAEA, said that Iran could potentially produce enough fuel for a nuclear bomb within seven to nine months.

Other experts suspect that Heinonen’s assessment presumed that Iran’s centrifuges were operating in a more optimal environment than is likely.

David Albright, a nuclear physicist who founded the Institute for Science and International Security, which tracks Iran’s nuclear program, said his organization’s own calculations were in line with the Obama administration’s estimate of a one-year breakout time.

But Albright said his more immediate concern centers around the strength of international inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Albright said the United States has encountered resistance from Tehran over the need for tougher verification measures that would grant IAEA inspectors the power to carry out snap inspections throughout the country. Iran, he said, has been reluctant to permit inspectors access to sensitive military sites.

Albright said it is hard to read Iran’s apparent turnaround on the transfer of nuclear material to Russia. “Maybe this is a negotiating tactic to shake up the United States; the Iranian’s don’t take the March 31 deadline so seriously,” he said. “Or maybe the hard-liners are asserting themselves.”

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John Hudson was a staff writer and reporter at Foreign Policy from 2013-2017.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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