Suspense And A Hint Of Hope In Iranian Nuclear Talks

The unexpected dispatch of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his European, Russian and Chinese counterparts to Geneva to join the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran sparked a day fraught with anticipation, as well as negotiations that stretched long into the Swiss evening. No deal has been announced as of this writing, but all evidence suggests that the 11-year impasse over Iran’s nuclear program may be on the verge of a historic settlement.

Any agreement that is inked this weekend between Iranian negotiators and the representatives of the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, will represent only a starting point — a down payment by all sides toward a more comprehensive final agreement that negotiators anticipate will require at least six months to flesh out. Still, an interim deal would represent a profoundly consequential achievement toward the international community’s effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, a kickoff and a mutually-agreed upon framework for the endgame. The pace of recent events on Iran may obscure just how unimaginable such a development seemed even six months ago.

Most educated estimates predict that the interim phase will strongly resemble the concept that my Brookings colleague Robert Einhorn, who participated in each previous round of nuclear talks with Tehran until leaving the government this summer, described in a recent speech to the Institute for National Security Studies. Measures would apparently include a freeze on higher-level (19.75%) uranium enrichment; a freeze on expanding centrifuge activity or installation; measures to reduce concerns about its stockpiles of both low-enriched uranium and near 20 percent enriched uranium; and other steps designed to address concerns about an underground enrichment facility at Fordow and an as-yet uncommissioned heavy water reactor in the city of Arak. A range of enhanced verification and inspection measures would ensure Iranian compliance with these terms during the negotiation of a final accord.

In exchange, Tehran would receive some modest sanctions relief, the precise dimensions of which remain unknown. However, Obama administration officials in a series of briefings to analysts and reporters in recent days have insisted that the fundamental architecture of the sanctions regime, particularly as it concerns the severe restrictions on Iran’s oil exports and its access to the international financial system, would remain intact until and unless a final deal can be achieved. (An unnamed senior U.S. official underscored for the press in Geneva this week that “we are not talking about touching the core architecture of the Iranian sanctions regime in this first step in any way.”) In other words, there may be some measures to relax sanctions along the margins of Iran’s economy, and other compensatory steps, such as the targeted release of some of Iran’s overseas foreign exchange assets that have been frozen by U.S. restrictions on the banking sector.

There seems no realistic prospect that the interim deal will fulfill the ambitious demands expressed in the multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program, which enjoin Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Iranian leaders have insisted for years that this provision is unreasonable and inconsistent with their interpretation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to which Tehran is a signatory. This presumption is already eliciting fierce denunciations of the potential deal from Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and a number of key Congressional leaders.

Still, any deal would entail the first concessions by Tehran on this issue since the August 2005 decision to abrogate an agreement with the European Union for a voluntary suspension of enrichment. That compact was negotiated in 2003 by Hassan Rouhani, who had primary responsibility for the nuclear talks at the time, and it generated a sharp backlash from Iranian hard-liners, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose bitter criticism of the suspension was expressed frequently in public. Rouhani’s unexpected election to the Iranian presidency in June empowered a new Iranian initiative to revitalize diplomacy on the nuclear issue, and he appears to have a very solid mandate to negotiate a resolution to what has been a protracted and, for Iran, incredibly costly standoff. 

Brookings scholars will be analyzing any developments in the ongoing negotiations throughout the forthcoming days here as well as in a variety of other media, and Iran@Saban will be sure to explore all the elements and highlight our colleagues’ diverse perspectives on the latest news. While it’s impossible to offer any certain dissection of a deal that is not yet done, my own early take on the emerging diplomacy is that an interim deal that is consistent with the administration’s preview and the parameters Einhorn outlined would represent a huge win for Washington and its allies. It appears that the international community may have managed to secure a truly meaningful first step from Tehran in constraining its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a relatively modest installment of the leverage amassed through the onerous sanctions regime.

For Iran, the implications are both sobering and encouraging. If the P5+1 held firm to its absolute assurances on retaining the underlying architecture of the sanctions regime, then Tehran sold relatively cheap at this point. Iran’s willingness to sign onto a preliminary set of concessions in exchange for access to some overseas reserves but without receiving in exchange any significant relief from the robust array of measures that deny Tehran most access to the international financial system would be telling. It would imply that the impetus for immediate financial relief may be even more urgent than many Iranians and informed observers have fully appreciated before.

However, it would also suggest that the effort to end the nuclear impasse has deep political support within the Iranian establishment. Iran’s diplomacy has been carefully orchestrated by Tehran from the moment of Rouhani’s entrance into the presidential race, and there will be no rogue gambits from the theocracy’s savvy negotiators. If Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has played a long game in Geneva by signing onto an arrangement where most of the compensation is deferred, you can be sure that he is assured of rock-solid willingness to defend that position from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A few hard-liners may mount a hue and cry, both sincerely and opportunistically, but the one man who matters in Iran appears to be ready to extend some trust to the Great Satan in exchange for a long-term payout.

And these points are precisely why the prospective deal should be celebrated, not censured, in Washington. Much of the emergent criticism of the still-to-be-determined provisions of the deal appears to be aimed at the staging, and the fact that a multi-phased accords release some pressure on Tehran without achieving irreversible constraints on Iran’s nuclear deal. But the beauty of the two-stage deal is that committing to the initial step really binds Iran’s leadership to seeing the process through as quickly as possible. Rouhani’s mandate, and arguably the Islamic regime’s remaining legitimacy, is tied to securing a real payoff in terms of sanctions relief, one that will only be trigged by compliance with the interim freeze and agreement to a permanent array of constraints and verification measures.

Washingtonians have learned the folly of preemptive declarations of victory on thorny Middle Eastern conflicts. Still, after years of frustration and evasion, this day of surprising announcements and this long night of serious discussions bode well for meaningful progress. Stay tuned for reactions and more analysis as the negotiations resume on Saturday.