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What to Expect If You’re Expecting an Iran Deal

July 18, 2014

By Jonathan Ruhe – Associate Director of The Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy

This is the final countdown to the not-so-final deadline for the not-so-final deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) implemented by Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, plus Germany), Sunday is the end of the six-month interim period for negotiating a comprehensive settlement on Iran’s nuclear program. While it remains difficult to predict any actual outcome for this latest, and perhaps ultimate, round of talks, there are several important things to consider going into the weekend.

First, temper any expectations of what Iran can or will credibly offer to restrict its nuclear program as part of a final deal. Headlines in recent days mention a relaxation of Iran’s position on its enrichment capacity, but even this less extreme demand would essentially keep its existing nuclear infrastructure in place. This would leave Iran’s breakout timing – roughly 3-4 months – fundamentally untouched, even if it converted its low-enriched uranium to a less immediately-threatening form. Indeed, because this material can likely be reconverted in a matter of weeks, Iran is only offering to “freeze” something it can just as easily thaw. This is also far short of even the Obama Administration’s oft-cited benchmark for rolling back Iran’s program to at least a 6-12 month breakout timeframe. Moreover, this Iranian offer wouldn’t freeze the overall growth of its nuclear program. Centrifuges would keep spinning, as they have under JPA, expanding Iran’s stockpile in the process. In just the six months since the JPA was implemented, this has already expanded from approximately three to now four bombs’ worth of low-enriched uranium.

Overall, therefore, the ostensible compromise offered by Iran’s negotiating team is to keep the foundation of the nuclear program it expanded rapidly in the year prior to the JPA. However, even this offer came under fire publicly from hardliners in the regime’s clerical and military establishments. The administration of President Rouhani – including the Foreign Ministry team tasked with nuclear talks – is motivated at least in part by its mandate from the Iranian electorate to secure significant sanctions relief as quickly as possible. As recent comments by Supreme Leader Khamenei indicate, this incentive is not necessarily shared by the regime’s ultimate decision-makers. Even on the off chance this is merely a last-minute bargaining tactic, it cramps the ability of Iran’s negotiators to credibly agree to anything that remotely approaches an acceptable deal for the United States and its allies.

ZARIF-MEET-THE-PRESSSecond, any final deal would not actually be final. If an agreement somehow is reached by July 20, it would be historic mainly in the sense that it would recede rapidly into history. As agreed in the JPA, any of the mooted restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capabilities in the preceding paragraphs would be lifted surprisingly quickly (Iran is pressing for 3-7 years, the United States for at least 10). Furthermore, the United States would be removing sanctions over this period. Tehran would thus be primed to emerge from an arms control agreement stronger than when started, with little incentive to continue limiting its program. A brief but telling glimpse into Iran’s mindset on this issue was provided by Foreign Minister Zarif’s Meet the Press interview this week, when he called limits on Iran’s centrifuges “arbitrary restrictions.” In fact, Iran agreed to these restrictions as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), even though it now uses that treaty to justify its proclaimed “right” to enrich. Given that the JPA effectively sides with Iran on this point by saying it will be treated like any other NPT member once the comprehensive agreement expires, it is unsurprising to hear Iran suggest it will vastly expand its enrichment program, either under a final deal or beyond it.

Third, the July 20 deadline is not final either. The JPA allows for the six-month interim period to be renewed by mutual agreement, but apparently the specifics are subject to debate or confusion. The wording of the JPA itself seems to imply the interim deal would have to be renewed tout suite, potentially dragging negotiations into January 2015 while sanctions remain weakened and Iran continues producing low-enriched uranium. However, U.S. State Department officials have stated a new interim framework could be part of renewal discussions, and other officials recently said the deadline could be postponed for periods much less than six months. In effect, there might need to be new negotiations about having further negotiations.

These are not just hermeneutics. As JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force argued in reports this past January and May, the existing interim framework is not making an acceptable final deal more likely to be achieved. A corollary is that simply renewing it would compound the disadvantages accruing to the United States. Unless the United States could somehow negotiate a new interim agreement that evaporates instead of freezes key parts of Iran’s nuclear program – a prospect made less likely by the existing interim agreement – any significant extension of the current framework thus should be viewed as cause for concern rather than a sign of progress.

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