Report: Fog Recedes from Nuclear Talks

December 12, 2014

             Iran and the world’s six major powers failed to reach a final nuclear deal in November due to disagreement on sanctions and the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group. The following is an excerpt on the redlines of the two sides.

Redlines: Clearer but Clashing
           While neither side publicly discussed an extension in the run-up to the November deadline, both saw it coming. The parties had made progress over the twelve months of talks and particularly during the rush to the end, but they were trying to resolve a nuclear crisis that had been more than twelve years in the making. Most arms control negotiations have taken substantially longer than one year to conclude. That said, procedural shortcomings and unwise tactical decisions – as well as fundamental misunderstandings – delayed the talks.
            In both their structure and substantive focus, in contradistinction with the first step
November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), these talks were unwieldy and not conducive to decision-making. At the core of the crisis is the regional competition, with its attendant animosity and mistrust, between the U.S. and Iran. The JPOA negotiations reflected this reality: they were predominantly negotiated by Washington and Tehran via a bilateral backchannel. The comprehensive talks, by contrast, were conducted mainly in a multilateral framework, which included a plethora of actors with competing interests. The JPOA, a political agreement, took three months to negotiate; only after it had been concluded did the negotiators turn to the technical implementation plan, which took another two months. By contrast the comprehensive talks, until the very last round, tried to address simultaneously both political questions and technical annexes, which diluted focus and further prolonged the process.
           The lack of focus was complicated by the negotiating strategy that both sides adopted. Their opening postures mixed maximalist bluster on certain issues with more realistic positions on others, obscuring for their rival what was negotiable and what was not.
           During the last round in Vienna (18-24 November), the parties corrected course by incorporating bilateral meetings of high-level U.S.-Iranian officials and by focusing on securing a political agreement before fleshing out the technical details. Highlighting that at heart this is a conflict between the U.S. and Iran, the two countries’ foreign ministers held productive meetings without the EU coordinator. Most importantly, by the end of the final round, the parties had gained a better appreciation of each other’s true positions.
           Two pairs of incongruous redlines lie at the heart of the disagreement. One relates to the scale and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment. Tehran’s redline is recognition of its right to industrial-scale enrichment, because, it argues, it will need to take over the fuelling of its sole nuclear power plant in Bushehr by 2021 when the reactor’s fuel supply agreement with Russia expires.14 The P5+1 – beyond its refusal to recognise such a right lest it prompt proliferation of dual-use technologies – views this demand with suspicion given what it sees as Iran’s minimal practical needs in the near future. The P5+1’s own redline is curbing the enrichment program for a sufficiently long period (measured in “two digits”, according to a senior U.S. official) that it prolongs Iran’s nominal breakout time to one year.
           Iran rejects breakout time as a relevant calculation and views the P5+1’s stringent
restrictions as a pretext for forcing it to forego enrichment altogether. Its negotiators appear amenable to creative trade-offs that could lengthen its breakout time, but insist that as confidence increases, its program should evolve without regard for breakout time. The P5+1, for its part, is willing to countenance growth but, in the words of a U.S. official, its view of “how much evolution over how much time” is “light-years” away from what Iran aspires to.
           The second pair of redlines concerns sanctions relief. While Iran appears amenable to accepting the suspension – as opposed to the outright lifting – of some sanctions in the early stages of the agreement, it expects any irreversible concessions it makes to be reciprocated with commensurate measures, namely terminating – not just suspending – sanctions. Tehran is also convinced that merely suspending sanctions would not bring economic relief, as foreign investors would hesitate to return so long as the threat of renewed sanctions persists.
            The P5+1, however, is reluctant to take such decisive measures because sanctions are more difficult to turn on and off than centrifuges. The group argues that once the UN sanctions are terminated, they will prove extremely difficult to reinstate in the event of an Iranian violation, given the divisions in the Security Council. Restoring EU restrictions also could prove thorny because they take their legitimacy from UN sanctions; since their resuscitation would require a consensus decision by all 28 member states, any outlier could block it.
           Too, interaction among various U.S., EU and UN sanctions complicates matters, as removing one piece might not be effective without removal of others. For instance, suspending restrictions on insuring Iranian oil shipments would necessitate modifications in both U.S. and EU legislation; even were that accomplished, such a change likely would have minimal practical effect because – assuming elimination of transportation obstacles – Iran could not access the oil revenues as long as financial restrictions remained in place. Likewise, any EU reversal would hinge on parallel steps in Washington to neutralise overlapping secondary sanctions.
            As for the U.S., the problem lies not in re-imposing sanctions but in terminating them in the first place. The power to do so is vested in Congress, which is highly skeptical of Iran’s intentions and therefore unlikely to comply with a presidential request to rapidly lift sanctions. The incoming Republican-dominated Congress appears both determined to deny Iran substantial upfront sanctions relief and hostile to an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program, even at the back-end of the deal. Given these political obstacles, the P5+1 insists on maintaining its sanctions leverage until Tehran conclusively demonstrates its commitment to a nuclear agreement and confirms the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities by resolving its outstanding issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Click herefor the full report.