What’s next for the nuclear negotiations?

By Gary Samore

Gary Samore

The Geneva interim agreement is intended to create political time and space to negotiate a final agreement within six months. However, the P5+1 and Iran remain far apart on the central issue of the negotiations – whether Iran can possess the physical capacity to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons as part of its “peaceful” nuclear program. Since this issue is so divisive and intractable, a final settlement in six months is unlikely. Instead – in the interests of keeping the process alive and avoiding the consequences of diplomatic stalemate or collapse – the P5+1 and Iran are likely to conclude another interim deal, which extends negotiations for a final agreement and hopefully includes additional nuclear constraints in exchange for additional sanctions relief. This is probably the best outcome that diplomacy can offer. 

Under the terms of the November 24, 2013 “Joint Plan of Action” between Iran and the P5+1 coalition (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China), both sides have agreed to take limited and reversible actions. Iran has agreed to suspend for six months expansion of its enrichment program and critical work on the Arak 40 MW heavy water research reactor, suspend production of 20% enriched uranium and dispose of its existing stock of 20% enriched uranium, and accept additional monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In exchange, the P5+1 have agreed to suspend for six months efforts to increase sanctions and to provide sanctions relief in a number of areas, estimated by the White House to be worth about $7 billion. At the same time, Iran will continue to produce low enriched uranium (less than 5%) at its current rate of production and retain its current stockpile of low enriched uranium, while the P5+1 will continue to enforce the remaining sanctions. In essence, the Geneva agreement is a truce in the long standing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks across the tarmac as he arrives at London's Stansted Airport, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013.

The interim agreement is intended to create political space and time to negotiate a “comprehensive solution” within six months. The essential elements of this comprehensive solution, as described in the Joint Plan of Action, would include agreed limits on Iran’s enrichment program for a specified duration, resolution of concerns related to the Arak reactor and full implementation of agreed transparency measures and enhanced monitoring. In return, all UN Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions would be lifted on an agreed schedule, and Iran would have access to international civil nuclear cooperation, including modern light water power and research reactors. The Joint Plan of Action effectively skirts the issue of Iran’s “right to enrichment” under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but says that a comprehensive solution will “enable Iran to fully enjoy its rights to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” under the NPT. 

The reason why the P5+1 partners decided to conclude an interim deal as a first step rather than negotiate a final agreement all at once is because Iran is not willing to make the concessions necessary for comprehensive sanctions relief at this time. Describing U.S. requirements for a comprehensive solution, President Obama said, “Because of its record of violating its obligations, Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon.” For Washington, this means prohibiting Iran from being able to quickly produce large quantities of fissile material for nuclear weapons by limiting the scope and scale of Iran’s enrichment program, preventing completion of the Arak heavy water research reactor, and imposing strong international monitoring to detect cheating. In effect, these limits would require Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to abandon (at least for the time being) Iran’s longstanding efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, which he is loath to do. Nonetheless, for the P5+1, an interim deal that slows or freezes some critical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program is preferable to no deal, which would lead to another escalatory cycle of increased sanctions and increased nuclear activities, moving Iran’s closer to nuclear weapons and increasing the risk of military conflict.   

But what are the prospects that the Geneva agreement will actually create conditions for negotiating a comprehensive agreement in six months? If the current level of sanctions is not sufficient to compel Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, it seems unlikely that reduced sanctions under the six month deal would be enough to fundamentally change Iran’s calculations. However, if the P5+1 are able to sustain the sanctions that remain in place during the six-month negotiations, and if Iran believes that the P5+1 are willing and able to reinstate the sanctions that have been eased and impose additional sanctions in the absence of a final deal, then Iran is more likely to accept demands for additional nuclear constraints. But the P5+1 will not be in a position to dictate terms to Iran. Just as the P5+1 can threaten to re-impose and increase sanctions in the absence of sufficient nuclear concessions, Iran can threaten to restart and expand its nuclear program if the P5+1 demand too much or offer too little.

Tehran undoubtedly hopes that partial sanctions relief under the six-month deal will create new loopholes to evade the remaining sanctions and erode the overall sanctions architecture, as countries and companies maneuver to resume business in anticipation that sanctions will be wholly lifted. To maintain pressure, Washington and its partners will need to demonstrate that they can enforce the remaining sanctions, including sanctioning countries or companies that seek to exploit the loosening of sanctions, and they will need to convincingly threaten to walk away from the negotiations if Iran rejects their demands. The U.S. Congress can help strengthen the threat by expressing support for additional sanctions legislation after six months in the absence of sufficient progress toward a final deal.

In conclusion, in the interim deal, both sides agreed to stand down from escalating hostile action against the other, but each side retains its biggest bargaining leverage for the much tougher negotiations that lie ahead. As such, it is unlikely that a final deal can be achieved within six months because the parties remain very far apart on the central issue of whether Iran will dismantle most of its enrichment program, abandon the Arak reactor, and accept intrusive monitoring. At the same time, both sides will want to avoid a collapse of the diplomatic process, so they will be inclined to find ways to prolong the negotiations, even if a final agreement is not possible. The result is likely to be another interim deal that extends the terms of the current interim deal for another six months and ideally includes additional restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for additional sanctions easing, while continuing to maintain the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement. At the end of the day, this step-by-step process may produce sufficient progress to resolve - or at least manage - the Iranian nuclear issue for the time being.  Alternatively, Iran may calculate at some point that it can renege or cheat on the agreement and the U.S. and its partners will need to resurrect the economic and political pressures that produced diplomatic progress in the first place. In this case, the interim deal will have bought time, but not a solution.

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.