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The Overlooked Upsides to a Tough Round of Iran Nuclear Talks

The latest round of talks between Tehran and six world powers ended on Friday with expressions of muted frustration from both sides over the failure to bridge longstanding differences on the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program.

It was a disappointing end to sessions that had been heralded as the first serious bargaining on the substantive issues, the beginning of a make-or-break period for the diplomatic process leading up to the July 20th deadline for the interim agreement signed last fall in Vienna.

While the stalemate interrupted the momentum that appeared to have been achieved since November’s interim accord, it revealed nothing that was not already known — namely, that this is a tough, possibly intractable, dispute that has resisted any easy resolution because of the vast distance between the interests and objectives of the two sides.

As former senior State Department official Robert Einhorn, now a Brookings senior fellow, noted in a piece published recently, Tehran’s stated aspirations for any continuing enrichment activities are totally inconsistent with the levels that U.S. and other international officials have suggested may be considered as part of a comprehensive deal. 

And while enrichment may be the most significant of the sticking points, it is hardly the only one: the Arak heavy water reactor, the Fordow underground enrichment facility, the unresolved questions about the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear activities, and a thousand other issues must be hashed out in excruciating detail in a comprehensive deal. This is a huge lift — harmonizing a specific, sequenced framework for Iranian concessions on the nuclear program and Western relaxation of economic penalties will entail tortuous trade-offs.

Amidst Iran’s ambitious campaign of diplomatic rehabilitation and the oddly upbeat forecasts of American negotiators in recent months, there has been a tendency among some in the media and the Washington policy community to presume that the deal is already done. “I’ve read a lot of what you all have written about how optimistic everyone is,” a senior U.S. official commented from Vienna prior to last week’s talks, “and I think it’s gotten way out of control.” 

So let this month’s dashed hopes serve as a reminder to hold off on the declarations of victory; the underlying impasse over the establishment of a framework of constraints on Iran’s nuclear ambitions has not yet been bridged. And as the same (unnamed) senior U.S. official has stressed repeatedly in pre- and post-talks briefings, “until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed.”

Still, for all the downbeat assessments of the outcome of last week’s talks, there are at least three positive take-aways from the current state of play that should be considered:

1. The struggle to devise a comprehensive agreement validates the decision to stage the negotiations in two phases.

In the wake of the initial breakthrough on the nuclear issue in November, some in Washington raised questions about the need for a two-stage negotiating process. Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere saw the interim agreement as a feint by Tehran, and insisted that any benefits of an interim bargain would be outweighed by the potential risks of legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program and eroding international support for sanctions. Their objections were echoed by Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted that only a maximalist deal that dismantled Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was an acceptable avenue for addressing the threat. And even some skeptics who understood that absolutism was not an answer wondered whether the phased framework was insufficiently ambitious.

The Obama administration justified its approach to the negotiations as well as its parameters for a deal as the most realistic and viable pathway to preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold. In a conversation at the Saban Forum in December, President Obama argued that “when I hear people who criticize the Geneva deal say it’s got to be all or nothing, I would just remind them if it’s nothing, if we did not even try for this next six months to do this, all the breakout capacity we’re concerned about would accelerate during that six months. Arak would be further along. The advanced centrifuges would have been put in place. They’d be that much closer to breakout capacity six months from now. And that’s why I think it’s important for us to try to test this proposition.”

The two sides have engaged in intensive negotiations over the course of the past four months, not simply at the level of the senior officials who met last week, but also among technical experts on both the nuclear issue and sanctions. Both sides have powerful incentives to achieve a comprehensive deal, but the continuing differences make clear how complex and difficult it is to hammer out an acceptable agreement. The ongoing challenges to finalizing a comprehensive framework bear out the wisdom of the phased approach and underscore the benefits of the interim accord’s freeze on important aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities.

2. The stakes in the nuclear standoff are only intensifying for Tehran.

The most serious criticism levelled against the interim accord was the expectation that the six-month interval would relieve the pressure on Tehran to ink a final accord. According to this narrative, sanctions would wither, the Iranian economy would boom, and the leverage that was assembled through years of painstaking diplomacy would be squandered. The interim deal would, in effect, become permanent, and the decade-long struggle to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability would be lost.

It’s clear that none of these dire predictions has come to pass, nor do they appear on the horizon. Tehran’s payout for the deal has been even more parsimonious than the modest terms of the interim accord. Iran has been flooded by foreign trade delegations, but to date the only real beneficiaries of the targeted sanctions relaxation in the interim agreement has been the hotels where the visitors stay. Big deals remain out of reach for the most part, as international firms await a more stable investment context that can only come with the actual removal of sanctions. Even the modest cash relief provided in the interim deal has proven more complicated than anticipated for Iranian officials to repatriate.

Iran’s economy stabilized early last fall, thanks mostly to the economic policies of a more prudent set of economic managers put in place after the August 2013 inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani. However, the interim deal and the optimism that accompanied Rouhani’s election has primed the pump of public expectations. As a result, instead of the imperatives for a final deal receding, they have actually intensified over the course of the negotiations. Iranians expect some peace dividend, and having focused his first-year agenda on the nuclear gambit, Rouhani’s popular mandate would be ruined by a failure now.

For all his animosity toward Washington and fickleness on the nuclear negotiations, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appreciates the dangers of another failed presidency for the regime’s legitimacy. Hard-liner grumbling and talk of a resistance economy — these are largely atmospheric. All sides in Iran are now heavily invested in a nuclear end game. This is why former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to Khamenei, was quickly dispatched to the press this weekend to offer assurances that the talks had not run aground. His message was clear: Tehran has not yet have given in, but the establishment remains all in on extricating the country from its ruinous impasse over the nuclear program.

3. The multilateral coalition on Iran’s nuclear challenge has held firm.

Perhaps the most important and encouraging outcome from last week’s round of nuclear talks with Iran was the news story that never came — that is, the lack of any overt divisions among the P5+1, specifically between Russian and American officials, at a moment of profound bilateral frictions over Ukraine and Crimea. This isn’t simply a lucky break, or diplomatic deference, but a testament to the strength of the ad-hoc multilateral coalition that was assembled to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities. At a time when international institutions are struggling to advance solutions to other intractable conflicts, and when other improvised coalitions have collapsed (remember the Quartet?), the enduring relevance and real effectiveness of the P5+1 is an especially important asset.

Somewhat unusually in the history of international crises, the Iranian nuclear standoff actually spawned unique institutions, most notably the P5+1 (or, as the Europeans say, the EU3+3.) This is a partnership between Britain, France and Germany — the three states that originally rose to the challenge of seeking a negotiated resolution to concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities after their 2002 disclosure — and the other three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, namely Russia, China and the United States. Thanks to the good offices of then-High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, the European Union assumed a leadership role in the early stages, and Solana’s successor Baroness Catherine Ashton has chaired the recent talks on behalf of the P5+1.

The P5+1 came into existence eight years ago, with the Bush Administration’s reluctant decision to join the Europeans in their diplomatic foray to address revelations about Iran’s previously undisclosed nuclear infrastructure. Its composition reflected Washington’s desire to marry the initial investment of the EU3 with the weight of the UNSC, to underscore to Tehran the potential price for declining to deal.

None of the parties would claim that the P5+1 is an ideal partnership, and over the course of the crisis, there have been episodic suggestions of re-engineering the unwieldy six-part coalition. However, over the course of the past eight years, through protracted and intense intra-coalition bargaining over strategy and tools, the P5+1 has gradually attained a real coherence. The coalition has survived to see its existence validated by newfound Iranian receptivity to an agreement.

Clearly, the preferences of the parties still differ, and there have been plenty of occasions for friction. Yet the Obama administration has managed to sustain a genuine sense of common purpose even as Washington has pushed its allies (and occasionally, pushed back against them) in pursuit of leverage that would bring Tehran to the table.

The P5+1 benefits from unique advantages. First, it is underpinned by the efforts of well-established international institutions, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UNSC. Second, the players broadly share a compelling common objective — a fundamental interest in ensuring that Tehran does not achieve nuclear weapons capability.

Still, whatever progress has been made on the nuclear front should inspire more creative thinking about how to apply the lessons of the success of ad-hoc multilateralism to other aspects of the Iran challenge, as well as other seemingly stubborn crises that have defied established institutional mechanisms, such as Syria.

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