After Geneva, can an Iran nuclear deal be done?

Analysts weigh in on the lessons learned from last weekend’s failure by Iran and world powers to conclude an agreement

Participants before the start of closed-door Iran nuclear talks at United Nations offices in Geneva on Nov. 7.
Martial Trezzini/AP

Geneive Abdo

Stephan Rohl

Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The progress made in Geneva last week between Iran and major world powers is making the naysayers of a possible nuclear deal extremely frustrated. Although no deal was struck, an interim agreement seems inevitable, if not when Iran meets the P5+1 again on Nov. 20, then shortly thereafter. In addition, the United States and Iran are now engaging in unprecedented bilateral talks. There are several reasons this time is different:

First, both the United States and Iran are eager for a deal immediately, even if it is an interim arrangement for six months and will require more difficult and detailed negotiations at a later time. Hard-liners in both countries are waiting at the gates to sabotage the process. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is profiting from international sanctions, and it is not in its interest if sanctions are lifted — which is the ultimate goal of the Iranian negotiators, supported by President Hassan Rouhani. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also supports the process, with some reservations. Principal Friday prayer leaders in Iran are also endorsing the talks.

Iran is running out of foreign currency reserves as a result of sanctions. Tehran must once again be able to sell its oil on the vast world market (not just to a few governments unfazed by sanctions) and thus needs a lifting of the oil embargo imposed on it. Also, due to international banking sanctions, Iran cannot do business in the international sphere. Although these sanctions would not be lifted immediately if a deal is struck, this is Iran’s ultimate goal.

Click for more in-depth Al Jazeera coverage of talks with Tehran

President Barack Obama, who vowed when he entered office to engage Iran to end three decades of hostility, also has no time to waste. He has a passion for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. But some anxious members of the U.S. Congress, ever wary of Tehran’s intentions, are poised to try to pass more sanctions on Iran. Should this happen before a deal is reached, the hard-liners in Iran would be able to argue that the United States should not be trusted. This would close the political space now open for Rouhani and his faction, and would completely end whatever progress has been made.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was quick to announce on Sunday, just hours after the Geneva talks stopped short of a deal, that he expects Congress to push for a new round of sanctions on Iran. He also outlined conditions for a deal he finds acceptable, which include requiring Iran to fully suspend its uranium enrichment program. Iran has stated clearly that, while it is likely to lower enrichment levels from the current 20 percent, it will not suspend entirely. In general, it will never give up what it calls its “unalienable” right to enrich uranium.

Second, the United States is no longer perceived to be Iran’s major bully. Now, Israel and France are filling that role. In responding to the outcome of the nuclear negotiations, the Iranian state media blasted these two countries. This is a huge historical shift and indicates there is a fragile consensus to try to reconcile with the U.S., the country blamed for most problems afflicting Iran. Now that Washington is perceived to be in favor of an interim deal and, ultimately, a comprehensive agreement, this deprives Iran’s hard-liners of perpetuating their ideological propaganda that relies upon anti-Americanism. France and Israel — the naysayers — and their supporters in the U.S. Congress are clearly isolated as the nuclear negotiations continue.

Meir Javedanfar

Meir Javedanfar is the owner and editor of the Iran-Israel Observer. He teaches contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

I still believe that there is a good chance for diplomacy to succeed. The administration of President Rouhani and the P5+1 seem very interested in finding a solution. The chemistry between Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU chief negotiator Catherine Ashton also seemed to be very good. The fact that they are scheduled to meet 10 days after the latest round of talks shows that there is momentum that they want to take advantage of. I was optimistic about the dedication of both sides to finding a diplomatic solution before the latest round of talks; I remain optimistic after them as well.

What do we learn from Geneva about how a diplomatic solution to the standoff can be achieved? First, that despite all the excitement and support for the diplomatic process, we should also expect setbacks as well as expected and unexpected differences to emerge. Second, don’t expect old wounds to heal easily. One of the reasons France seems to be taking a tougher line is because of the way the French government was treated during the Ahmadinejad era by the Iranian government.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was most recently a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Geneva talks closing without agreement has not changed my assessment of prospects for a nuclear deal. An agreement remains possible, but shrouded in many ifs regarding the ability and desire of Iran's interlocutors to overcome serious roadblocks to any kind of agreement with the Islamic Republic. Geneva clearly showed that Tehran is open to an agreement that limits its nuclear program and brings sufficient transparency to address concerns regarding its breakout capability — a posture that was subsequently buttressed by an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to voluntarily allow inspection of sites not required by Iran's safeguard agreement.

The impact of Iran's election has been quite visible in giving the Iranian negotiators both the flexibility and the political will to pursue talks with quite a bit of confidence. But Geneva also showed that such a collective political will may not yet exist within P5+1, or is at least faced with serious challenges emanating from the fears of regional countries regarding any agreement that may eventually ease the economic and political containment of Iran, as well as from domestic considerations in the United States. Despite later revisions regarding what happened in Geneva and who was responsible for blocking an agreement, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius' initial acceptance of responsibility for the blockage of a first-step agreement on behalf of Israeli interests by insisting on an issue that could have been addressed at a later stage revealed that opposition to an agreement may not only be about Iran's nuclear program, and may well have more to do with currying favor with other regional countries and competition among Western countries themselves.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's sudden change of narrative regarding what happened in Geneva and which country balked at signing on to the agreement brings into question the Obama administration's political will or ability to push through an agreement that will face opposition from Iran hawks in the U.S. Even if it is true that Tehran balked at signing an agreement that did not acknowledge the country's right to enrich uranium, this begs the question of why the Obama administration is so skittish about putting some sort of acknowledgment on paper when everyone knows that even an effort to reach an agreement is futile if Iran is not allowed to continue enriching at some level and extent. All in all, it seems that a desire to arrest a march to war through diplomatic means is what motivates a serious diplomatic effort by P5+1, but lack of cohesion regarding the endgame and how far Tehran can be pressured continue to inhibit turning the possible into the actual. 

Patrick Clawson

Jay Mallin/Bloomberg News/Getty Images

Patrick Clawson is director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Iran Security Initiative.

An important lesson driven home by the recent Geneva talks is that the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program cannot be resolved by the United States alone. Iran’s nuclear activities deeply concern many countries in the region and in Europe. Any agreement worked out by the United States, which is regarded with profound suspicion by Saudi Arabia, Israel and France, will face many problems. If those three actors do not think that the agreement puts adequate limits on Iran’s nuclear program, the crisis sparked by that program will not end — the Saudis may pursue their own proliferation options, the Israelis may consider more direct military action (going beyond the past assassinations and cyberwar) and France may complicate or block any effort to normalize Iranian-European relations. Even short of that, if those three parties are manifestly unhappy with an accord, the Obama administration will have great difficulties persuading the U.S. Congress to act on sanctions relief. In short: Allies matter, and the U.S. has not persuaded its allies of the wisdom of its approach.

Much of the suspicion is about the basic Obama strategy of a short-term freeze so as to allow negotiation of a permanent agreement. The objections to the Geneva deal were only in part about how far the freeze should go: how much of Iran’s nuclear activity to freeze and how much of the sanctions to freeze in return. At least as important were the worries that what the United States characterizes as a first step would become in fact the last step — that is, there would never be a permanent agreement. The fear is that once any agreement has been done, no matter how much it is described as temporary, the rush would be on to lift sanctions. Several of Iran’s trading partners would want to get a jump on access to Iran’s market by lifting more sanctions more quickly than do others, with the effect that the sanctions would seriously erode. Were that to happen, Iran might conclude it has already gotten about as much sanctions relief as it will ever get, recognizing that many U.S. sanctions would remain in the aftermath of a nuclear deal since those sanctions were imposed as much for Iran’s support for terrorist groups as for its nuclear program. So Iran might see little reason to negotiate the further limits on its nuclear program that would be needed for a full permanent agreement.

Added to the doubts about the basic U.S. approach is an Israel-Saudi-French concern that the Obama administration is so eager for a deal that it will not press as hard as it could. That is fed by a further suspicion that Obama may be willing to do a de facto deal with Iran in which Tehran accepts limits on its nuclear program and Washington, in exchange, turns a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of regional hegemony, beginning with a pre-eminent role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

The challenge for the Obama administration is to shore up solidarity with its allies. The paradox is that the more united the United States and its allies can be, the more likely Iran is to recognize that it must compromise more fully than it had previously hoped.

Joe Cirincione

Carnegie Endowment

Joe Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund and the author of the new book "Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late."

Six nations were prepared in Geneva to make an interim deal; one nation was not. The French concerns have now been incorporated into a new draft agreement, but it was different enough from what has been worked out over the last few weeks that the Iranian negotiators had to go back for further consultations.

But there is now momentum behind a deal to constrain Iran's program while providing it with some limited relief from sanctions. There was tremendous progress in Geneva. Ministers from all seven nations met in marathon sessions to narrow the gaps, and committed to having their teams return in a mere 10 days. The strategic imperatives driving toward an agreement are strong; the negotiating teams from both Iran and the United States are perhaps the best we could imagine.

We have come a very long way in the past two months. We now accept as normal that the U.S. secretary of state should engage in hours of discussion with the Iranian foreign minister. But that hasn't happened since the shah. It happened for the first time at the United Nations in September, and then for only one hour. The U.S. and Iran negotiated more in three days in Geneva than they had in three decades.

All the nations were in agreement, and a draft agreement had been worked out, until French Foreign Minister Fabius arrived and threw a croissant in the spokes. He took a maximalist position, according to some observers on the scene, and insisted on conditions Iran could not meet. Other members of the P5+1 were reportedly furious at Fabius.

The differences appear to be largely over the issue of the Arak reactor. This reactor is not scheduled to go online until the end of 2014, is already behind schedule, cannot produce plutonium for a year after that, and Iran does not have a reprocessing plant that could extract the plutonium. It is a problem, but not a near-term proliferation threat. Fabius wanted it shut down now.

Kerry made clear that the reactor would have to be part of a final agreement. But that is different from making it part of this limited initial step. The French approach is the difference between making demands and making a deal. Yes, there is a list of issues we must resolve; no, we do not have to resolve them all in the first step.

The plan is for a phased agreement: Iran stops certain activities; the others relax certain sanctions. As more activities are stopped, more sanctions relief is granted. France overloaded the cart. We now have to unload it a bit, or if we want Iran to do more, we have to be prepared to offer more sanctions relief. There is agreement on the main components of the deal; we are now bargaining over the ratios.

U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague told parliament on Monday that there was now a solid Iran deal "on the table, and there is no doubt in my mind that it can be reached." I agree. We are very close to a deal. It's coming. It will just take a little more time.

Mark Fitzpatrick

Mark Fitzpatrick is the director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is also a founding member of the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium.

Given the number of parties that needed to reach consensus, it was no surprise that a deal was not reached in Geneva this time. After all, it was only the second session, and the gap to be bridged among the main antagonists was huge. When the meeting finally ended late on Saturday, it was with a positive tone — not acrimony — recognizing the progress that was made. After the hiccup involving France, the P5+1 are now likely to again be in sync. As a result, a better interim deal will be up for discussion when parties meet again on Nov. 20.  

The question now is whether Iran will be able to accept the additional compromises that will be necessary regarding the Arak reactor, to keep it from providing a path to a plutonium bomb. Secretary of State Kerry spoke about the interim deal freezing Iran's program, which is critical. It should be recognized that it would be a freeze on capabilities, not output, but even the freeze on capabilities is not complete if Arak construction is allowed to progress to the point of preparatory startup operations that are in train for the next six months. Details have not yet been released, but there are undoubtedly other ways that the deal that was in play in Geneva needed to be improved.  

Until the full facts are available, observers should be modest in drawing conclusions about what transpired in Geneva this time. One obvious lesson is that multilateral diplomacy is more difficult and time-consuming than the bilateral variety. The views of dialogue partners cannot be taken for granted. But multilateral diplomacy can produce stronger results as a result of a wider buy-in among both the direct participants and those they represent. If France's reservations are successfully accommodated, the resulting deal will be an easier sell with the many critics in Washington and Israel who otherwise seem eager to constrain President Obama's room for maneuver. In sum, I am more optimistic about a deal emerging from talks in Geneva than I was before last Thursday.

Reza Marashi

Reza Marashi is the research director for the National Iranian American Council. He previously served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

My assessment of the prospects for a deal remains the same: Diplomacy is a more deliberate — and often more difficult and frustrating — path to resolving conflict. But neither side can get very far without it. I was in Geneva for the talks, but one didn't have to be there to see the obvious: More progress has been made over the past three months than in the past three decades combined. A deal was within reach, and it will continue to be, going forward, because the bedrock of these negotiations has not changed. It's in the interest of both sides to develop a peaceful solution to the conflict, and diplomacy is the only viable pathway that bridges status quo mistrust to future cooperation.

The latest round of talks in Geneva taught us three important lessons that will be instructive as both sides look to finalize a diplomatic solution to the standoff. First, never assume the P5+1 has agreed on a unified approach before it enters the negotiating room. Often, it hasn't — a lesson we learned at the 11th hour in Geneva. Second, personalities and credibility matter. Everyone who was in Geneva for the talks knows that Iran didn't walk away from a deal. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. Going forward, actions must match words on both sides. The personalities at the negotiating table must be credible in the eyes of one another if the requisite confidence for a deal is to be built. Third, moving the goalposts erodes confidence. Achieving the common objectives that were hammered out in the first round of Geneva talks will require constructive diplomacy on equal footing that remains confidential. 

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