Experts evaluate prospects for final Iran-P5+1 nuclear agreement

On April 1, the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion on the progress of talks between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, on a comprehensive nuclear agreement. After an introduction by Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Wittes, Senior Fellows Robert Einhorn, Suzanne Maloney, William Galston, and Daniel Byman provided an overview of the state of play of the negotiations, identified key factors that have complicated the formulation of a preliminary political framework, and evaluated prospects for a final deal by the official deadline of June 30.

Einhorn opened with an overview of the latest round of talks, which were intended to produce a political framework by March 31. Iranians, including nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi, have said that they expect a press statement on the talks, but not a concrete agreement. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have advocated against a vague statement, saying that they support a detailed statement which identifies key areas of progress in talks.

The U.S. objectives remain unchanged, said Einhorn. First, the U.S. seeks to put in place rigorous verification measures which could detect covert noncompliance with any agreement. Second, the U.S. would like to lengthen to one year the time it would take Iran to “break out” to produce enough nuclear material for a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so. Third, U.S. negotiators have pushed for an agreement which would remain in force for at least 10-15 years, with incremental sanctions relief occurring as Iran fulfills its obligations. According to Einhorn, the U.S. may want to ensure permanent monitoring of Iranian nuclear activities under the IAEA Additional Protocol.

Einhorn identified a number of unresolved issues that have complicated talks. These include: the timing of sanctions relief, including the easing of U.N. Security Council sanctions; Iran’s ability to conduct research and development of advanced centrifuges; the duration of any agreement; the handling of Iran’s stocks of gaseous enriched uranium; and the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear activities, which the IAEA has said it must clarify to have confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

Negotiations have failed primarily because the Iranians have taken a rigid approach, said Einhorn. This lack of flexibility could be a tactical decision, designed to extract further concessions from the U.S. even as pressure builds in the U.S. Congress. It could also be a sign that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has laid out clear red lines for the negotiating team, and that the Iranian negotiators are not yet willing to push back against those guidelines.

In her remarks, Maloney focused on Iran’s domestic dynamics. She emphasized that, despite internal disagreement on the specific elements of a potential deal, there is a strong political consensus in favor of the negotiations themselves. However, Maloney also stressed that negotiators must adhere to the relatively inflexible terms for an agreement articulated by Khamenei. She identified his stance as the primary obstacle to progress toward a final deal. 

Finally, Maloney emphasized the significance of the sanctions as a challenge in devising a mutually acceptable agreement. The implementation of the Joint Plan of Action has shown the Iranians that simply signing a deal has not reinvigorated their economy, or significantly trade and investment, Maloney said. Tehran mistrusts the Obama administration’s capacity to implement sanctions relief and is seeking to maximize the immediate benefits it enjoys from any long-term bargain.

Galston engaged the discussion through the lens of American public opinion, which has grown increasingly hawkish on foreign policy in the past months. Citing a Quinnipiac University poll released April 1, Galston noted that voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, three critical swing states, favor a diplomatic settlement to military intervention by a margin of four to one. And yet, by a similarly strong margin, Americans are skeptical that Iran will negotiate in good faith. This, Galston said, indicates a contradiction at the heart of American public opinion.

Galston believes the March 31st soft deadline to be less consequential than April 13, the date Congress reconvenes in Washington. Several proposals to establish a greater legislative presence in the negotiations process have already gained bipartisan momentum, notably legislation introduced by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and by Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL). Although the course of congressional action remains unclear, Galston concluded that increased legislative involvement will loosen the Obama administration’s already tenuous grasp on the negotiations process.

Watch video or listen to audio from this event here