The Lausanne framework: A promising foundation for a nuclear deal with Iran

The Obama administration finally has wind in its sails on the Iran nuclear issue. For months, critics — both domestic and foreign — framed the public debate. With major negotiating issues still unresolved, the Administration did not have a concrete result to defend and, in any event, was inhibited by a concern that the premature public airing of negotiating details could impede solutions. Now that the P5+1 countries and Iran have reached an understanding on the key elements of a final deal, the President and his team are better equipped to make the case for what they have achieved to date, and they seem to relish the opportunity to do so.

They also got a big political boost by dramatically exceeding expectations. As the March 31 target date came and went, the public impression was that the parties were deadlocked on critical issues and would fall far short of their goal of a complete political framework that would guide negotiations on a final agreement by the end of June. Downbeat predictions gave rise to speculation whether there would be enough progress even to justify continuing the negotiations.

But a couple of arduous, around-the-clock days of bargaining brought surprisingly impressive results. While the joint statement issued by the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran on April 2 was short on specifics at Iran’s insistence and significant issues have yet to be resolved, the political understandings reached at Lausanne — as presented in a U.S. fact sheet — were more detailed and comprehensive than anyone would have imagined.

Meeting U.S. objectives

Those understandings indicated that the U.S. negotiating team had made substantial headway toward meeting its stated objectives. A central objective is to constrain Iran’s nuclear program sufficiently to lengthen from two to three months to at least one year the time Tehran would need to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for a single nuclear weapon. In coming weeks and months, experts in and out of governments will do their “breakout” calculations and debate whether the one-year standard has been met. But key parameters announced in Lausanne — enrichment at no more than 3.67 percent and with no more than 5060 first-generation centrifuges, removal of currently-installed next-generation centrifuges, monitored storage of excess centrifuges and their infrastructure, restricted R&D on advanced centrifuges, and a cap of 300 kilograms on stocks of low-enriched uranium — will give the administration a strong case that breakout time will be at least one year for at least ten years.

Corresponding constraints will block the plutonium path to a bomb, including the redesign of the Arak heavy water reactor, the removal of its spent fuel from Iran, and a ban on reprocessing and reprocessing facilities.

On another central objective — monitoring and transparency measures that can reliably detect cheating at both declared and covert locations — the Lausanne understandings provide a promising foundation for an effective verification regime. In addition to requiring adherence to the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, the political  framework calls for continuous surveillance at uranium mills and at centrifuge production and storage facilities and creates a monitored procurement channel through which Iran would be required to import all nuclear-related and dual-use items for its civil nuclear program. And according to the U.S. fact sheet, the IAEA will have access to visit suspicious sites “anywhere in the country.”

An important feature of the various monitoring measures is their long duration.  Some will remain in force for 20 years, some for 25 years, and some, like the Additional Protocol, permanently.

Indeed, a novel feature of the political understanding is that the eventual comprehensive deal will have multiple durations, not a single one and not just for its monitoring measures. Thus, while the ceiling of 5060 on centrifuges enriching uranium and the ban on enriching with advanced centrifuges will be in effect for 10 years, several other constraints on Iran’s enrichment program will last at least 15 years, including the limit of 3.67 percent on enrichment level, the cap of 300 kilograms on low-enriched uranium stocks, and the bans on new enrichment facilities and on enrichment, enrichment R&D, and possession of fissile material at Fordow.

The questions that remain

Still, while exceeding expectations, the Lausanne framework leaves critical questions unanswered.  Some of them may already have been resolved but not yet fully or publicly explained. For example, the U.S. fact sheet states that “Iran will engage in limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges, according to a schedule and parameters which have been agreed to by the P5+1.” This suggests that a non-public understanding may exist about centrifuge R&D that could affect breakout time after 10 years.

Similarly, on the issue of constraints applicable to enrichment after 10 years, the fact sheet says that, “beyond 10 years, Iran will abide by its enrichment and enrichment R&D plan submitted to the IAEA.” Again, the implications of any such plan have not been publicly addressed.

Other crucial questions seem not to have been resolved and will need to be tackled in the next few months:

  • Although according to the U.S. fact sheet, the IAEA is supposed to have access “anywhere” in Iran to investigate suspicious activities, the procedures that will govern such inspections and determine their effectiveness — including their timeframes, any advanced notification requirements, any “managed access” arrangements, and responses to denials of access — presumably have yet to be worked out.
  • There seems to be agreement on a “dispute resolution process” involving the JCPOA parties.  How such a mechanism would operate and what recourse would exist if compliance issues cannot be resolved quickly are critical matters.
  • U.S. spokespersons have referred to “snap-back” procedures that would automatically restore suspended sanctions in the event of Iranian non-compliance.  Such procedures may well be controversial, perhaps even among the P5+1.
  • On the question of Iran’s past activities suspected of being related to nuclear weapons development, the U.S. fact sheet states that “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns.” There appears to be little agreement so far on what those measures would be, when they would be carried out, and their relationship to the timing of sanctions relief.
  • The U.S. fact sheet indicates that a new United Nations Security Council resolution will incorporate “important restrictions” on conventional arms and ballistic missiles as well as provisions that allow for cargo inspections and asset freezes. Given Iran’s resistance to dealing with non-nuclear issues in the comprehensive agreement, these issues are likely to pose a negotiating challenge.

Perhaps the most politically fraught unresolved issue is the timing of sanctions relief, and specifically the relationship between Iran’s implementation of its nuclear obligations and the suspension or termination of U.S., EU, and U.N. Security Council sanctions. For the Iranians, whose top priority in the negotiations is getting rid of the sanctions that have crippled their economy, it is critical that sanctions be removed at the earliest possible date. For the U.S. and its P5+1 partners, retaining the leverage to promote Iranian compliance requires that the phasing of sanctions easing measures corresponds with the implementation of Iran’s nuclear commitments.  The dueling U.S. and Iranian accounts of where the sanctions issue currently stands indicate the extraordinary sensitivity of the matter, especially in Iran, and preview the difficulty of resolving it in the period ahead.

Progress in Lausanne justifies time to craft a final deal

In the aftermath of the Lausanne round, much attention has been devoted to discordant public comments coming from Iran and the United States about the political framework reached. Not surprisingly, each side has sought to demonstrate to key domestic constituencies that it has achieved its negotiating objectives, and it has therefore selectively drawn attention to elements of the Lausanne outcome it considers most favorable. Thus, Iran points out that the framework would allow it to achieve an industrial-scale enrichment capability, while the United States emphasizes the constraints that would preclude such a capability for a significant period.  The United States highlights the very low cap on low-enriched uranium (LEU) stocks, while Iran notes that it will be able to sell excess LEU on the world market or use it to produce reactor fuel. And Iran advertises that it will continue R&D on advanced centrifuges, while the United States stresses that centrifuge R&D will be limited and that no advanced models will be enriching uranium for at least 10 years. 

Such differing explanations are not incompatible with one another and should not be very disturbing. Most of the differing readouts coming from Tehran and Washington are of this variety. Much more disturbing are public accounts that contradict one another, as seems to be the case on the timing of sanctions relief.  An early order of business when the talks resume will be to reconfirm areas of agreement and avoid backsliding.

In their final days of high-pressure, non-stop negotiations in Lausanne, the parties did more than just salvage a negotiating process teetering on the brink of failure. They produced a surprisingly complete and detailed framework that provides a promising foundation for working out the details of a comprehensive agreement. But as President Obama and his negotiating team are the first to acknowledge, many critical issues remain unresolved, the hardest bargaining lies ahead, and success is far from guaranteed. Still, on the basis of the Lausanne outcome, the negotiators deserve to have the time and space to continue their efforts, without outside interference, to find out whether a sound agreement is achievable.