New obstacles to negotiations arise – best analyses

After a break for the holiday season, Graham Allison and Gary Samore return to gather best analyses from the past three weeks. New reporting from inside Iran and discussions of new obstacles to a final agreement showcase the challenges the negotiations now face.


Contrary to the fears voiced by skeptics in the weeks following the interim deal signed last November, both the P5+1 and Iran appear largely to have accepted the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement. At the same time, a handful of remaining differences over the interpretation of the Joint Plan of Action remain, and a new congressional sanctions initiative sponsored by Senators Menendez, Kirk, and Schumer threatens to undermine end-state negotiations on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

Best analyses

Several articles from experts in the field have added to the discourse on the Iran nuclear challenge, including:

  • Daniel Brumberg in Foreign Policy examines underlying differences among the U.S. and its partners over the role of sanctions against Iran. For some, sanctions were a diplomatic tool to pressure Iran to make nuclear concessions. For others, sanctions were intended to force Iran to capitulate or even collapse. Singling out Israel’s role in the confusion, Brumberg writes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared sanctions “useless one day, only to praise them later as a tremendous success.” In 2013, Brumberg argues, the pieces fell into place for a diplomatic solution, but passing additional sanctions now would undermine prospects for a lasting deal.
    Constructions in district of Elahiye in north of Tehran
    Construction in the district of Elahiye in the north of Tehran
    Milad Mosapoor, via Wikimedia Commons

  • David Ignatius’ reporting from Iran in the Washington Post underlines the gap between the predominant Western picture of an Iran suffering under the weight of sanctions and the more complicated reality he observed on the ground in Tehran. He reports that “the Iranian economy manages to hobble along despite ‘crippling’ economic sanctions. The streets are clogged with traffic, ATMs dispense streams of cash, banks issue Iran-only debit cards and a nation of traders finds ingenious ways to evade legal obstacles.” However, Ignatius writes, “the true burden of sanctions” should be measured in terms of “cost in lost opportunity…this economy is a shadow of what it might be.”
  • Ignatius also scored an interview with Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper that is generally representative of the Supreme Leader’s views (Kayhan’s editor-in-chief is directly appointed by Khamenei). The editor’s remarks offer a vivid reminder that the factional struggle inside Iran is at least as intense as the animosity between the United States and Iran. Though the relatively moderate foreign minister Javad Zarif “has the backing of 90 percent of the people”—according to an unnamed Iranian banker—skeptical hardliners and leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are likely closer to Khamenei’s ear. The influence of these conservatives limits the concessions that Iran can make in a final deal.
  • Jofi Joseph, writing for Iran Matters, explains the important differences between the often-confused IAEA and P5+1 negotiating tracks with Iran. “It is best,” he writes, “to think of the IAEA track as taking a retrospective look at the past history of Iran’s nuclear program and the P5+1 track as taking a prospective look at the future of Iran’s program.” The P5+1, Joseph argues, may allow Iran to evade the IAEA’s investigation into their past nuclear efforts as part of an exchange to achieve a final deal that limits Iran’s future nuclear activities.
  • Siegfried Hecker and William Perry present a thoughtful case in the New York Times that Iran should abandon domestic enrichment and reprocessing for the sake of developing its nuclear power program. The two prominent nonproliferation advocates offer a useful reminder that, if Iran’s government truly is interested in a peaceful nuclear program as it claims, there is a better approach than Iran’s ambiguous status quo. To Hecker and Perry, focusing on learning to build power plants, rather than enriching uranium, constitutes “a pragmatic and honorable choice” for Iran—and one that the international community could respect.

Mindless maximalism

At the risk of seeming unduly critical, but in the hope of encouraging thoughtful analysis, we call out “Don’t Get Suckered by Iran” in Foreign Affairs by two serious analysts who in our view fall into a serious error often referred to as “mindless maximalism.” As if achieving an agreement that prevents Iran getting a bomb were not enough, authors Mitchell Reiss and Ray Takeyh argue that “it would be a grave error to allow the Islamic Republic to emerge from the negotiations with its nuclear ambitions intact, its terrorist activities undiminished, and its people denied their basic rights.” So if all negotiations can achieve is to stop Iran’s nuclear program—doing nothing about its denial of basic rights at home or support for terrorist activities abroad—would they seriously recommend rejecting that agreement? In negotiation theory's checklist of clues for failure, escalating demands beyond the realistic zone of agreement appears near the top. 

Graham Allison is director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. Gary Samore is executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 2009-13, he was President Obama’s White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction.