Belfer Center scholars comment on final round of nuclear talks before JPA expires

Iran-P5+1 negotiations in Vienna

Seven members of the Belfer Center's Iran Working Group—Graham Allison, Chuck Freilich, Martin Malin, Payam Mohseni, Gary Samore, James K. Sebenius, and Will Tobey—offer their thoughts and predictions on the current round of P5+1 nuclear talks being held in Vienna. 

Graham Allisondirector of the Belfer Center and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School:

The gap between the US position and the Iranian position on numbers of centrifuges is too wide, and the process of negotiating through a P5+1 process too cumbersome to reach a final agreement.   But the progress that has been made, and the promise for more will be sufficient for both Iran and the US to conclude that extending the Interim Agreement for an additional 6 months of negotiation is better than the alternatives.

Chuck Freilich, senior fellow at the Belfer Center and former Deputy National Security Advisor in Israel:

The outcome of the current talks is of great importance for all parties concerned, but none more so than Israel, for whom a nuclear Iran presents a potentially existential threat. A final deal appears unlikely by July 20th, but an extension of a few more months does not make a crucial difference, as long as Iran continues to implement the terms of the Interim Agreement.

Israel seeks a deal which leaves Iran without means of reaching a military nuclear capability, in essence an end to all enrichment capabilities and a closing or dismantlement of the Arak plutonium reactor. Until last fall, when the Interim Agreement was signed, the US shared this approach and it was actually the position embodied in the relevant Security Council resolutions. The P 5+1, however, came to the conclusion that a complete end to Iranian enrichment was not realistic and that it would have to be left with some limited capability if a final agreement was to be reached at all. The objective today is reportedly to leave Iran with a limited enrichment capability which would ensure that it would need at least 6-12 months to "breakout", while the Arak reactor would be modified in ways that minimize the proliferation risks. Intrusive inspections would also be part of the package. 

It is true, as Israel has charged, that a 6-12 month "breakout" time will effectively leave Iran a threshold state. An unwelcome outcome certainly, but conflict management, rather than conflict resolution, is a common result of crises and gaining time, as long as Iran's capabilities are effectively frozen, is also important. For Israel, this is a bitter and dangerous compromise, but one which I believe it should and will ultimately accept.

The crucial question is the alternatives. The Obama administration appears totally averse to military action and if negotiations fail, the US and international community will, at most, return to sanctions. It will then be in Iran’s hands to decide whether or not to complete development; If Iran has rejected a deal, after intense sanctions and negotiations, this will be a strong indication that it is willing to pay the price and go ahead.

The only remaining alternative will then be Israeli military action, an option Israel may ultimately have to pursue when all others have been exhausted. The Iranian nuclear program, however, can no longer be eliminated by a military strike; since Iran already has the necessary know-how, even a completely successful attack will not prevent it from reconstituting the program should it decide to do so, though the time required will probably be longer than anticipated by most Western observers. An Israeli attack, over American objections, is a most undesirable option. 

In these circumstances, a final deal which verifiably assures that the Iranian program remains frozen for a few more years, is no less effective than military action and Israel can always go the military route in the future. The sad truth is that even if a final deal is reached, Iran is unlikely to forgo its nuclear aspirations, merely biding time until more propitious circumstances arise. We will therefore be forced to continue managing the issue for many years to come and the closest possible synchronization of American and Israeli objectives and tactics on this issue is of the essence.

Iran-P5+1 negotiations in Vienna
March 9, 2014 - Negotiators gathered at the second round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran. A new round of negotiations, the last before the scheduled expiration of the Joint Plan of Action, began July 2nd. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)

Martin Malin, executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center:

There are five possible outcomes to the current round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, which are scheduled to come to a close on July 20: (1) a comprehensive deal, (2) an extension of current interim agreement to allow more time for negotiation, (3) a new interim agreement, in which the parties agree on certain items and agree to continue talking about other items (4) a collapse of the process, with Iran walking away from a relatively united P5+1, and (5) a collapse of the process with an openly divided P5+1 pointing fingers at one another.

Three of these outcomes seem rather unlikely: If recent news reports are correct that the parties remain far apart on the size, capability, and oversight of Iran’s enrichment program, then it seems a comprehensive agreement in the coming few weeks may be beyond reach.  Given the extent to which Iran has suffered under sanctions, it also seems unlikely that Iran would simply walk away from a deal that all members of the P5+1 believe is reasonable.  A collapse of negotiations where Russia (and China) split from the West in support of Iranian proposals, though a concern, is also far-fetched.  Russia has no strategic interest in either the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, or in the collapse of Iranian oil and gas sanctions that could result in downward pressure on prices.

An extension of the current agreement, though not a sure bet, would come as no surprise. But it is not clear that either side’s position is likely to soften much as time goes on.  Domestic politics in both Iran and the United States will make a comprehensive deal even more difficult to reach in the future.  Will Rouhani and Zarif be in a better position at home to sell the benefits of continued negotiation toward a final deal when the sanctions remain in place, the P5+1 show no signs of giving in on enrichment, and outside investment in Iran’s oil and gas infrastructure remains frozen?  Will president Obama face a more accommodating congress in 2015, as the circus of the 2016 elections looms? 

There are significant benefits to concluding an agreement where agreement is possible by July 20, and drawing up a new and revised joint plan of action for the remaining negotiations.  If Iran, for example, is prepared to agree to a reactor at Arak that has irreversibly lower plutonium production potential than is currently planned, then why not take Arak off the negotiating table and allow construction to begin along agreed upon lines?  President Rouhani could celebrate the agreement as a tangible negotiating victory. President Obama would meanwhile tell congress that the negotiators had permanently blocked Iran’s clearest plutonium pathway to a bomb.  A partial but permanent agreement could help build confidence in continued negotiations, reduce the complexity of the agenda, and weaken hardliners on each side who want nothing more than to be able to demonstrate that no deal will ever be possible.  A new interim deal that consolidates gains and narrows the focus to the real differences that remain—in particular on enrichment—could make a final agreement more feasible in the coming months.

Payam Mohseni, director of the Iran Project and fellow of Iran studies at the Belfer Center:

As the next round of negotiations begin in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1, the mood here in Tehran is still generally optimistic that a final deal will be successfully reached.  This optimism partly stems from the perception that negotiations are the only way forward in solving the current impasse and reflects Iran’s genuine will in pursuing this path. This positive outlook however has recently been tempered by the reality that difficult challenges still lie ahead in finalizing a comprehensive agreement—challenges that mostly concern substantive differences over the exact contours of a limited Iranian nuclear program.

At the heart of this issue lies two divergent perspectives on how to assess the number of centrifuges Iran should be able to operate: the “breakout” approach and the “practical needs” approach.  The Iranian elite, irrespective of political orientation, are quite vocal in criticizing the breakout approach, whereby Iran’s nuclear program would be limited based on the breakout time to reaching a nuclear bomb.  Instead, they emphasize that assessments on the number of centrifuges should be based on the reasonable needs Iran has for the peaceful use of nuclear technology and that verification and monitoring mechanisms can be sufficient for assessing Iran’s compliance with any agreement reached.

The difference in the number of centrifuges between these two approaches can be obviously quite substantive, but the exact parameters within each approach are currently also broad, vague, and contestable.  The key to finding a solution to the current impasse—if at all possible—is how this square can be circled and the gap between these two approaches bridged. While it would certainly be better to reach a final agreement as early as possible, the inherent difficulty of finding common ground on this issue will likely push back the timeframe by which a final agreement can be accomplished beyond the July 20 deadline. Finally, in trying to reach a final deal, it is important for the U.S. not to overplay its hand in the negotiations, to be cognizant of the confidence of the Iranians—that sanctions have not forced them to accept any compromise—and aware that U.S. interests would be better served through a mutual settlement than recourse to worse alternatives.

Gary Samoreexecutive director for research at the Belfer Center and former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction:

On the eve of the final round of negotiations before the July 20 deadline to reach agreement on a comprehensive nuclear deal, Iran and the six world powers remain very far apart on the most essential issue of the negotiations – Iran’s “break out” capacity.  The six world powers are demanding that Iran significantly reduce its enrichment program for more than a decade (numbers and types of centrifuges, stocks of low enriched uranium, etc.) so that Iran is not able to quickly produce large quantities of weapons grade uranium.  Iran, on the other hand, rejects any dismantlement of its existing enrichment program and insists that it needs to significantly expand its enrichment program over the next decade, which would inherently create an option to produce significant amounts of weapons grade uranium within a short period.

At this point, neither side appears willing to make significant concessions on this core issue.  Unless that changes, a comprehensive deal is unlikely by July 20.   At the same time, all parties appear relatively comfortable with the status quo created by the interim agreement.  The U.S. (and the other world powers) have essentially frozen Iran’s nuclear program at the cost of minor sanctions relief, without sacrificing the main elements of the sanctions regime.  For its part, Iran’s economic circumstances have stabilized, without sacrificing the main elements of its nuclear program.  Moreover, none of the parties would welcome a breakdown of the interim agreement that would escalate tensions as the U.S. and EU re-imposes sanctions and Iran resumes its nuclear program.  Even harsh critics of the interim agreement, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, prefer a continuation of the status quo to a “bad” deal that allows Iran to retain thousands of centrifuges.

Accordingly, it seems likely that the parties will be inclined to extend the negotiations if they can’t complete a comprehensive agreement by July 20.   The Joint Plan of Action already provides for an extension for six months if the parties agree, but the precise terms and duration of any extension will need to be negotiated.  In an op-ed for the Washington Post on June 30, Secretary of State Kerry said that the “United States and its partners will not consent to an extension merely to drag out negotiations. Iran must show a genuine willingness to respond to the international community’s legitimate concerns in the time that remains.”  For its part, Iran is likely to seek additional sanctions relief as a condition for extension, and the six powers are likely to respond by demanding additional nuclear constraints.  For example, now that Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has already been diluted or converted to oxide under the Joint Plan of Action, the six powers might require Iran to convert a larger portion of its 5% enriched uranium to oxide as a condition for continuing to give Iran access to $550 million a month of its frozen oil revenues.  The parties also have the option of extending the negotiations for less than six months if they want to set a shorter deadline for completing the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement.

There is, of course, the possibility that the upcoming negotiations will go so badly that the talks breakdown without agreement on extension.  Having demonstrated its ability to enforce sanctions, some in Washington might be tempted to increase sanctions to pressure Iran to make additional nuclear concessions.  Some in Tehran may calculate that political developments, such as the Western confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and the breakup of Iraq, may create opportunities for Iran to resume its nuclear activities.  On balance, however, it seems more likely that caution and prudence will prevail in Washington and Tehran.  The interim agreement will be extended. 

James K. Sebenius, Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and co-chair of the Belfer Center's Iran Nuclear Negotiations Working Group:

As six months of talks soon end with wide gaps likely remaining on key issues, P5+1 and Iranian diplomats will undoubtedly cite positive atmospherics and perhaps some tangible progress, then argue for a six-month extension, an option that’s built into the interim deal. This could easily become a pattern, with some version of the interim deal hardening into a de facto stopping point—especially if the no-deal alternative is cast as either an attack or acquiescence with Iranian nuclear capabilities. Meanwhile, Western companies continue to lobby their governments to permit Iranian contracts, the will of allies to support sanctions erodes, diplomatic focus shifts, and Iran’s nuclear program quietly advances. As the head of Iran's nuclear agency ominously declared, "The iceberg of sanctions is melting while our centrifuges are also still working." 

To mitigate this very real risk of “deal drift,” the United States and its allies should set a realistic, hard deadline—one more six month extension—for reaching an acceptable agreement. Setting a credible deadline will be difficult, however, since warnings of “red lines” will doubtlessly ring hollow to an Iranian regime that has already crossed so many

To boost its credibility -- and to help win over its own domestic and allied skeptics -- the administration should pre-negotiate a harsh new “contingency” sanctions package with Congress and work to ensure buy-in from U.S. allies. But instead of signing the sanctions bill immediately, President Obama should -- at an appropriate pause point in next phase of the ongoing talks -- publicly and forcefully commit to signing it if there is no acceptable agreement by the end of one, six-month extension of the interim deal. 

To avoid triggering the new sanctions, the President would have to certify that any new deal meets acceptability criteria; a bipartisan expert panel of former national security officials could also be required to concur. The International Atomic Energy Agency, meanwhile, could be required to declare that Iran has satisfactorily answered all of its questions.  A contingent sanctions bill passed with deep bipartisan support, coupled with a public presidential commitment to sign it by a specific date, will enhance U.S. credibility, highlight the very real downsides for Iran of no deal, and make it harder for blockers to gain traction in Tehran. 

Along with others, I have elsewhere—here and, at more length, here—characterized the elements of an acceptable agreement and how the contingent sanctions approach suggested here differs from previous such proposals that were badly flawed.   

Combined with a positive campaign that makes the gains of a deal more salient, credibly setting a hard, costly deadline could well tip the internal Iranian balance in favor of a deal. After all, bargaining in the shadow of a lawsuit, strike or hostile takeover often spurs results that would not have been possible without the credible threat of consequences stemming from failure. 

Will Tobey, senior fellow at the Belfer Center and former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration:

Facing a July 20 deadline for completing an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear activities, and grasping for a foreign policy success in a flood of failures, the Obama Administration will be tempted to seek a deal that is "good enough.”  Among the issues that remain unresolved are the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, some of which may be ongoing.  These were specific actions that Iran undertook that could only logically be explained by a covert nuclear weapons program.  Some people argue that pursuing these past matters is not worth risking failure to reach deal now.  These issues are, however, at the core of what is at stake.  According to Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday, "the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported since 2002 on dozens of violations by Iran of its international nonproliferation obligations, starting in the early 1980s.”  We cannot trust that Iran has ended its pursuit of nuclear weapons unless and until we have a complete picture of Tehran's past actions, to ensure that they are not ongoing and will not recur.  Simply increasing Iran’s “break-out time” from two months to six or twelve months would be a hollow deal if Tehran remains intent on pursuing nuclear weapons.  Rather than reach a hasty agreement now, the P5+1 negotiators would be wise to demand further progress on resolving the IAEA’s concerns before reaching a comprehensive agreement.  If Iran refuses, that will provide further useful insight into the willingness of the Islamic Republic to comply with any nuclear deal.