Belfer Center scholars offer comments and predictions on upcoming talks

Catherine Ashton and Mohammed Javad Zarif at P5+1 talks in Vienna

Seven members of the Belfer Center's Iran Working Group--Graham Allison, Nader Habibi, Payam Mohseni, Gary Samore, Will Tobey, Jim Walsh, and Stephen Walt--offer their thoughts and predictions on the current round of P5+1 nuclear talks being held in Vienna. 

Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School:

As the P5+1 and Iran begin negotiations today in the hopes of reaching a comprehensive agreement, a chorus of both supporters and critics of the interim deal have offered solutions to the Iranian nuclear challenge that are worthy but unworldly. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s four “no’s” are a leading case in point. Demanding that Iran be left with no enrichment, no centrifuges, no stockpile of enriched uranium, and no heavy water reactor at Arak is the surest way to a fifth “no”: that is, no deal. The outcome we must achieve is none of the above. Rather, it is to deny Iran an exercisable nuclear weapons option. That means ensuring that Iran cannot use whatever knowledge, industrial base, and ongoing enrichment activities remain after the agreement to break out to a bomb. Our essential requirement is that the timeline between an Iranian decision to seek a bomb and success in building it is long enough, and an Iranian move in that direction is clear enough, that the United States or Israel have sufficient time to intervene to prevent Iran's succeeding.

Nader Habibi, Henry J. Leir professor of the economics of the Middle East in the Crown Center at Brandeis University:

I expect the negotiations toward a permanent deal to be difficult and take at least several weeks. This is because any permanent solution that is acceptable to both sides (the U.S. and Iran) will inevitably fall short of each side's initial objective and will be subject to considerable domestic criticism by domestic opponents of President Obama and President Rouhani. Both sides must demonstrate to the hardliner skeptics in their respective countries that they have fought as hard as they could to gain maximum concessions from the other side. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei has already expressed pessimism about the outcome of the new round of negotiations at the same time that he has authorized that government to participate in them. 

Catherine Ashton and Mohammed Javad Zarif during P5+1 talks in Vienna
February 18, 2014 - European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during P5+1 - Iran Talks in Vienna. (AFP PHOTO/SAMUEL KUBANI via Flickr)

It is unlikely that Iran will accept a permanent halt to its entire enrichment program or accept any limitations on its military missile development program. Iran is under considerable economic pressure, but the ruling regime is not so desperate that it can be forced to accept a visibly humiliating arrangement. It knows that if negotiations fail economic pressures will intensify, but it is less worried about a military attack. However, after several rounds of difficult negotiations and a dynamic media war, I believe there is a more than 70% probability that a permanent agreement between Iran and 5+1 can be reached in 2014. 

Payam Mohseni, post-doctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center:

While the new phase of the nuclear talks began today between Iran and the P5+1 in a climate of uncertainty, my recent discussions with Iranian elite in Tehran suggest that negotiations will, indeed, likely be successful in the long-term. First, the current Iranian negotiating team that is leading the discussions has both the will and the ability to finalize a comprehensive agreement. Although the composition of the team is a direct result of the election of President Rouhani last summer, their position on the country’s nuclear program and their receptive view of negotiations is nothing new—a point that was emphasized to me on multiple occasions. As is evident in their previous attempts to compromise over the nuclear program and other regional issues in 2003, as well as their recent commitment to the interim agreement reached in November, the government is serious in resolving remaining questions over the program and re-gaining the trust of the international community. The current sanctions regime and the possible, albeit remote, chance of war only strengthens the group’s resolve to settle the issue.

Second, the hardliners are not bent on sabotaging the process – despite common assumptions to the contrary. Even in my discussions with hardliners who were very critical of the interim agreement, most still voiced their support for the nuclear negotiations and expressed a desire to strengthen the government’s hand in the process and to reach a successful outcome. The main concern they voiced to me was questions of Washington’s sincerity about the negotiations and the absence of American will to resolve the nuclear issue because of U.S. animosity for the revolution and the regime. This issue, coupled with the power struggle that is occurring within the elite, seemed to be of more pressing concern for hardliners than the actual details of the nuclear program. In fact, many of the debates I witnessed between moderate and hardliner figures in Tehran were focused on questions of domestic reform, regional foreign policy, and U.S. intentions towards the country – not issues directly related to the nuclear negotiations.

The hardliners do believe important regional, domestic, political, and economic gains can be made by resolving the nuclear issue, even as they are cautious of how a larger transformative process will unfold and unconvinced that the U.S. seeks such an outcome. This will pose unique challenges to forthcoming negotiations. But a nuanced diplomatic approach by the U.S. and the P5+1—one that takes place not only at the formal negotiation table but also in public arenas and through different channels of soft power—has the potential to integrate and appease many hardliner concerns. This is how the international community can, at least, find an acceptable, comprehensive solution to Iranian’s nuclear ambitions.

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

The opening round of negotiations this week in Vienna between EU High Representative Cathy Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and the P5+1 political directors on a comprehensive solution will be difficult. Both sides will put forward their maximal demands for what they anticipate will be a difficult, year-long negotiation, assuming the initial six month interim agreement is extended for an additional six months. The P5+1 will demand long-term constraints on Iran’s enrichment program (number and type of centrifuge machines, level of enrichment, and stockpile of low enriched uranium), closure of the Fordow enrichment facility, halting construction of the Arak heavy water research reactor, and intrusive verification measures. Iran will reject these demands, focusing instead on its demands for near term, comprehensive sanctions relief.

Despite the vast differences between their opening positions, however, both sides have an incentive to keep the process alive. Neither side wants to be blamed for the collapse of the talks. A breakdown is unlikely. Some areas of potential compromise may emerge. For example, Iran has indicated a willingness to consider some temporary limits on its enrichment program and modifications of the Arak reactor to reduce plutonium production. Whether these hints of flexibility bear fruit will depend on technical details hashed out by teams of experts. Therefore, the primary result of this week’s meeting may be to schedule a series of expert level meetings to explore possible technical compromises.  

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

Iran's leaders are undoubtedly watching closely negotiations with its ally Syria, and drawing conclusions with respect to their own talks with the P5+1. What lessons are they learning? Unfortunately, not ones that bode well for success in the nuclear realm.

The latest rounds of the Geneva II negotiations ended in utter failure, with President Bashar al-Assad opening a new round of barrel bomb attacks on neighborhoods and mosques. Moreover, the effort to remove Syria's chemical weapons has ground to a halt with only about 4 percent of the agents removed. Worst of all, the failing chemical weapons deal substantially strengthened Assad's position and effectively ended any concerted international pressure for his removal.

The obvious lesson for Tehran: reach an interim agreement that deflates international pressure for action, drag your feet on implementation, and keep your illicit weapons program as the world dithers and bickers.

If the Obama administration cannot compel a weakened Assad government, beset by civil war and subject to international opprobrium for using chemical weapons, to comply with its disarmament obligations, it cannot succeed in dealing with a much stronger Iranian regime. The price of failure in Syria will be a doomed nuclear deal with Iran.

Jim Walsh, research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program and former executive director of the Managing the Atom project at the Harvard Kennedy School:

Most analysts believe that negotiations toward a comprehensive agreement will be technically and politically challenging. I agree, but I also think that most observers are underestimating the chances that the parties will be successful. Both the U.S. and Iran now—for the first time in years—have strong incentives to complete an agreement and to do so sooner rather than later. President Rouhani has staked his political future on the ability to reach a deal deliver sanctions relief. Each month that passes presents his domestic critics with more time to undermine his position. The US has less on the line, but now that the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) is being implemented, the US has a strong incentive to push forward, if only because without progress, the JPA will cease to exist, and Iran would be free to enrich to 20%, limit access to its nuclear facilities, and otherwise continue its nuclear program unfettered. For both sides, a return to the pre-JPA status quo would be a step backwards. Given those incentives, the challenge ahead is likely to be more about selling an agreement to skeptical or even hostile domestic audiences than it is working out the details of the deal.

Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School :

Let me offer a somewhat different take on the Iran negotiations. The current diplomatic effort is definitely worth doing, but it is easy to exaggerate its importance. In general, the United States has exaggerated Iran's significance for years now, and we often behave as if U.S. security and prosperity depend on the outcome. In fact, the United States and its allies are probably going to be fine no matter what happens in Vienna and beyond.

If the talks succeed, the United States and its allies will have cut Iran’s program back and made a future Iranian “breakout” more difficult. That would be very good outcome, but Iran will still be a latent nuclear power with the requisite knowledge to reconstitute its program and then move to weaponize if circumstances change. A deal is still desirable, but is not by itself a game changer.

Yet the same is true if the talks fail. Even if no long-term agreement is reached, Iran probably won’t cross the nuclear threshold anytime soon (unless the United States keeps threatening to attack it or actually goes ahead and bombs). Even if Iran does get its own nuclear weapon someday, that development won’t turn the Islamic Republic into a superpower or allow it to blackmail its neighbors. And it certainly is not going to commit suicide by attacking Israel, which already has a robust nuclear deterrent of its own. I hope the talks succeed, but even if they fail, it may not make that much difference, especially if the United States is perceived by the rest of the world as having negotiated in good faith. This is not an argument for downplaying diplomacy, but it is a counter to the breathless rhetoric that advocates and opponents of diplomacy often invoke.