Future Prospects for Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Talks

Last week, shortly after the close of the latest Iranian nuclear negotiations and the announcement of a seven-month extension of talks, the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative hosted a discussion entitled “Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Negotiations: The Road Ahead.” The speakers considered the likelihood of reaching a final deal, remaining points of contention, options available to the P5+1, and the role of the U.S. Congress.

Read the transcript here; listen to a recording of the entire discussion here, or view video highlights here and on the Brookings Now blog.

Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Einhorn explained that the extension means that the arrangements under the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) will remain in place. Iran’s nuclear program will remain frozen until late June 2015 in exchange for modest sanctions relief and the release of some oil revenues held in foreign financial institutions. The most powerful sanctions — those targeting Iran’s banking and oil sectors — remain in place.

Einhorn noted that statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials suggest that there is hope for a final agreement and that continuing to pursue such a deal is in U.S. interests. However, he suggested that greater Iranian flexibility on key issues will be essential to reaching a comprehensive deal.

Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that he is encouraged by Iran’s recent willingness to talk bilaterally with Washington, but troubled by Tehran’s rigidity in the face of the P5+1 partners’ “very reasonable, even generous offer that would have allowed Iran to retain a limited enrichment capacity and eventually build up to a larger capacity as part of its nuclear power program and to defer coming to terms with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] on the question of Iran’s past weaponization activities. All of this in exchange for graduated sanctions relief.” David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, agreed that Iran has been unwilling to make concessions and argued that “the U.S. has been willing to… in some cases go too far… in order to try to find an acceptable deal.”

The biggest points of contention in the negotiations surround the continuation of Iran’s enrichment program and the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Specifically, Samore said, Iran has insisted on maintaining all of its existing centrifuges and rapidly ramp up enrichment capacity, in exchange for total, immediate sanctions relief — positions that he described as unacceptable to the P5+1.

Another sticking point is Iran’s alleged past efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program demand that Iran satisfy concerns about possible military dimensions (PMD) of their nuclear activities. Albright said that a seven-month extension should provide sufficient time for Iran to satisfy these concerns with the IAEA before a comprehensive deal is finalized; otherwise, the agency’s credibility will be undermined even as it is tasked with verifying any deal. “History matters,” Albright said. “You have to know the history in order to know what’s going on now.”

In the wake of the extension, what are the options for the U.S. and its partners? Samore suggested that the P5+1 should refuse to propose new options for a deal until Iran makes a serious counter-offer. He said that Washington can also intensify pressure by encouraging further reductions in purchases of Iranian oil and high output by oil-producing states.

Edward Levine of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation noted that Congressional “options for legislation aren’t very good,” describing existing bills as “killer legislation” and adding that “if you want a piece of legislation that would help our negotiators rather than antagonizing our allies and ending the negotiations, you have to come up with something else.” He proposed legislation “tailored to what we’re offering” – such as a bill that invokes sanctions only if realistic parameters for a deal are not achieved. “That would be a very difficult piece of legislation for Congress, because it would involve giving up on more maximalist goals… but it could help the negotiations.”

Ultimately, Samore said, there will be no deal until Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, authorizes greater flexibility. Samore said that he is convinced that Khamenei is determined to acquire nuclear weapons capability, but is also somewhat risk-averse and can be deterred. Einhorn expressed less certainty about Iranian intentions, arguing that a final deal should deter Iran from making the choice to produce a weapon. To accomplish that, he said, a comprehensive agreement should make the process of acquiring a weapon lengthy, detectable, and costly for Iran if caught.

Einhorn said that he is encouraged by reports that Iran may agree to export low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia, which would lengthen the break-out timeline and possibly facilitate greater flexibility on Iran’s centrifuge capacity. In order to create the 12-month breakout timeline preferred by the P5+1, Albright said that a final agreement must dismantle or otherwise disable centrifuges and reduce LEU stocks. The speakers also advocated that a final deal address potential covert use of nuclear technology by permitting IAEA monitoring of key activities such as centrifuge manufacturing, to prevent illicit use.

Einhorn closed the discussion by advocating that any assessment of a final agreement consider the totality of the tradeoffs, rather than focusing on one element, such as centrifuge numbers. Most importantly, he reminded the audience that although any deal will inevitably be imperfect, the realistic alternative policies — additional sanctions or military strikes — are not necessarily more effective.