Challenges in extending the Joint Plan of Action

Jofi JosephJofi Joseph explains the procedure, and the pitfalls, of extending the Joint Plan of Action if a final nuclear agreement is not forthcoming by July 20th. There are, he notes, many diplomatic and political obstacles to overcome to secure an extension.

By Jofi Joseph

The latest round of talks last week in Vienna over the future of Iran’s nuclear program demonstrated that, while all sides continue to negotiate in a serious and good faith manner, the gaps between the P5+1 and Iran remain quite significant. In particular, Iran insists on not only retaining, but expanding its existing uranium enrichment program for the ostensible purpose of fueling future nuclear power reactors, while the P5+1, led by the United States, responds that Iran can only operate a largely symbolic enrichment program for the duration of a comprehensive agreement to deny it the option of rapidly breaking out to production of highly enriched uranium.  Although all involved continue to speak optimistically on reaching a final agreement before the July 20th expiration of the six month interim agreement, there are increasing references to the possibility of extending the interim accord to allow more time for negotiations on a permanent deal.

Indeed, the text of the Joint Plan of Action agreed upon last November in Geneva does allow for an extension, simply stating that the interim agreement has a “duration of six months” and is “renewable by mutual consent”.  Most observers have interpreted this language to assume that an extension of the interim agreement for another six months would be a routine and automatic measure.  That, however, is not the case. If and when the P5+1 and Iran acknowledge in the coming weeks that a permanent agreement is not possible by July 20th, they must then enter into another negotiation over the duration and terms of an extension of the interim agreement, one that will undoubtedly be scrutinized closely by skeptics in Tehran and Washington, D.C.

The intended length of the extension will influence the overall negotiation. If negotiators are confident they are very close to a final agreement, they may choose to negotiate an extension through July 31st or mid-August. Such an extension of two to four weeks would likely prompt an automatic rollover, with Iran agreeing to continued limits on its nuclear program, including no enrichment above 5%, in exchange for a continued suspension of discrete U.S. and European sanctions and no requirement for any new provisions.

However, it gets trickier if an extension of three or six months is on the table. There is some thinking that the White House, if an extension proves necessary, would still prefer to wrap up a final agreement by October and hence is only willing to extend the interim deal for another three months.  Under that timeline, any initial Congressional measures required immediately under a permanent agreement could be facilitated by a Democratic controlled Senate in a lame duck session, before power possibly flips to the GOP in January 2015. That schedule also accommodates the planned departures of the European Union’s Cathy Ashton and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, both of whom plan to step down this fall and have served as integral interlocutors in Iran diplomacy in recent years. Alternatively, a full six month extension would carry the talks through the end of the year and offer the added incentive of not having an Iran deal get politically entangled in the late stages of the U.S. midterm elections.

Catherine Ashton
June 23, 2014 - EU High Representative and P5+1 negotiator Lady Catherine Ashton speaks after a European Union Foreign Ministers' meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Lady Ashton plans to step down from her post this fall. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, under either a three or a six month extension, an automatic rollover of the interim agreement becomes more complicated. On the one hand, the P5+1 may note that, because Iran has already oxidized or diluted its 20% enriched uranium stockpile, Iran should accept additional restrictions on its nuclear program if it is to enjoy a continued steady state of sanctions relief. What may those new restrictions entail? For starters, the P5+1 could insist that Iran not only cap its stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium at existing levels, but undertake further oxidation of the enriched uranium such that the overall 3.5% stockpile decreases.  Iran could be asked to halt all enrichment activity at the underground Fordow site, in preparation for its conversion to other purposes under a final agreement. Finally, the P5+1 could press for additional verification and transparency measures, perhaps as a trial rollout for those measures under discussion for a permanent agreement.  From Iran’s perspective, it is likely to insist on the additional repatriation of its funds currently frozen in overseas bank accounts above and beyond the continued suspension of various individual sanctions; under the interim agreement, $4.2 billion of such funds were repatriated to Iran during the current six month period.  Although Tehran may view this as a logical extension of the existing interim agreement, U.S. negotiators in particular will not be eager to accommodate fresh inflows into the cash strapped Iranian economy.

Even if the P5+1 and Iran find common ground on an extension of the interim accord to allow more time for talks on a permanent solution, this agreement will run into significant resistance in some national capitals.  Hardliners in Washington and Tehran view the interim accord as lopsided against their respective interests and a ploy for the other side to drag out negotiations while refusing to address core concerns; any extension would only harden their opposition. Assuming the Supreme Leader gives a green light to President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, any dissent in Iran can be managed. President Obama faces a more difficult proposition. The Administration successfully dissuaded the Congress from passing legislation late last year that would have imposed new sanctions on Iran upon the expiration of the initial six month interim accord if a permanent accord was not reached. Expect a renewed bipartisan push for sanctions when an extension is announced, requiring the Administration to quickly whip votes on the Hill if it is to avoid the unpleasant politics of a Presidential veto.

Accordingly, an extension of the existing interim agreement is no sure thing. Just as with every other element of diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program, it will require significant political will on both sides. Negotiators will face a difficult challenge as the calendar draws closer to July 20th as they will want to give their all to reach a final agreement, but also put aside adequate time to draft an extension agreement that meets the needs of both sides.  The alternative is grim, as a collapse of diplomacy means a return to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program and the re-imposition of sanctions, including new measures, against the Iranian economy. For all these reasons, the next three weeks will be a fascinating rollercoaster.


Jofi Joseph worked on US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program and participated in P5+1 negotiations with Iran as White House National Security Council staffer from 2011 to 2013.