After Geneva, how will the US and Iran reach a final deal?

The parties have six months to negotiate a long-term agreement; analysts weigh in on the challenges they face

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a ceremony in Geneva.
Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Al Jazeera asked a number of analysts of U.S.-Iran relations what the Geneva interim agreement suggests about the prospects for a lasting diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff, and to assess the significance of the direct talks between Washington and Tehran that have been conducted in secret.

John Limbert

Eric Bridiers

Ambassador John Limbert was a U.S. diplomat held hostage in Tehran for more than a year after the Iranian revolution in 1979. He was  appointed Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy in August 2006 after retiring from the Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor.

The terms agreed to in Geneva tell us that we have already come a long way from the futile exchanges that characterized these negotiations for years. Assuming that this interim agreement holds up, they also tell both sides that if one says yes to something the other side proposes, the sky will not fall. Reaching a larger deal may take longer than six months, but we should not give up.

Quiet and private bilateral diplomacy is vital because it frees both sides from the need to posture and repeat tired and empty slogans and talking points. The direct U.S.-Iran channel should be carefully fostered, since it can lead us beyond the technicalities of the nuclear issue to a more productive bilateral relationship.

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 terms of the preliminary agreement suggest that Tehran is willing to go a long way to assure its interlocutors that its program will not weaponize. In fact, some of the transparency measures and limitations it agreed to were surprising. But the agreement also suggests that Tehran has no intention of abandoning its full-fledged and diversified civilian nuclear program. It expects and will drive a hard bargain to make sure that all its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are respected, and will resist attempts to curtail them permanently even if it is willing to delay or limit some of the components of its planned program for the sake of building trust in its intentions. A comprehensive agreement is possible only if Iran's interlocutors come to terms with this reality.

The significance of a direct U.S.-Iran channel lies in the breaking of the taboo of direct and publicly displayed contact and negotiations in ways that were unimaginable just a few months ago. Both sides showed unprecedented political will to engage and search for a solution. In many ways, the mere fact that an agreement was reached was even more significant than its content. Once a taboo is broken, it is usually the case that what was once unimaginable becomes routine. So yes, I do think that contacts will continue and even possibly expand.

Meir Javendanfar

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

The Geneva agreement tells us that the two sides are willing to take a political risk, especially when it comes to opposition forces at home, by showing flexibility at the talks. It also tells us that it seems Iran could be changing course, as it is now offering at least one compromise that goes beyond its International Atomic Energy Agency legal commitment by agreeing to allow inspection of its centrifuge-making facilities.

The direct U.S.-Iran negotiating channel is very significant. It shows that the sanctions started affecting the economy and changing decisions at the top of the Iranian leadership long before we realized. Otherwise, Ayatollah Khamenei would not have allowed such direct talks to take place. The channel also shows that diplomacy works, especially at times when it’s far away from the media's eyes.

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.

For Iran, the United States has always been the big prize. For 30 years, Iran’s bombastic rhetoric against the “Great Satan” was merely an expression of a hurt heart. So the euphoria in Iran in the last few days over the nuclear deal is not surprising. However, some Arab societies are mourning, not celebrating. As I write these comments from Cairo, the reaction expressed in the Arab world’s most populous and arguably more important state is one of fear and discontent. If the deal with Iran extends beyond the six-month interim period and succeeds, this could mean more intrusion by Tehran into the Arab world, shifting the balance of power that has been in place for decades.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s larger objective has been influence in the Middle East. To some degree, that was achieved by its client relationships with Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the ruling Shia government in Iraq. The sectarian Shia card was the draw — at least on the surface — that cemented those relationships, even if religious and political differences remained. But now, what will happen to Sunni Arab societies that have so far managed to escape Iranian Shia influence?

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The Egyptians worry that as the United States turns its sights to Tehran, the illegal, coup-inspired government they inherited will expedite a return to military rule that has all the earmarks of the Gamal Abdel Nasser period of the 1950s.

For the Palestinians, the status quo of occupation and repression could be the future. Now that Tehran is engaging Washington, the ideological value of championing the Palestinian occupation — an issue Iran used as a thorn in the side of the United States and Israel — has far less political capital.

And finally, the nuclear deal gives Iran much leverage in future negotiations over Syria. It is entirely possible that Iran agreed to the nuclear deal in the context of upcoming talks in Geneva that will likely keep the Syrian regime intact. This is the expectation among many Sunni groups, who regard the nuclear deal as the nail in the coffin of the fragmented Syrian opposition.

As the dynamics shift as a result of the deal, Saudi Arabia will certainly deepen its influence in countries such as Egypt and will likely find a positive response. Some Arabs feel Washington has abandoned them, and that it’s time to find another protector.

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."

The deal Secretary of State John Kerry masterfully crafted in Geneva eliminates the threat that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said was his most serious concern. It completely stops the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. It gets rid of all the uranium Iran had already enriched to this level. As a result, it doubles the time it would take Iran to dash to a bomb, plus it adds tough new daily inspections of the nuclear facilities that could spot any such dash, giving nations ample time to take appropriate actions.

The deal basically freezes the Iranian program in place. It is not a complete suspension, but it makes sure that Iran cannot move ahead with its program while negotiations continue. In exchange, the international community will deliver about $7 billion in sanctions relief, leaving the entire sanctions architecture in place and continuing to freeze over $100 billion in Iranian assets held abroad.

This is just the initial phase. The prospects for a final deal in six months are very good. Here's why: If Iran wants serious sanctions relief and access to those frozen billions, it will have to negotiate over the next six months a final agreement that would permanently cap its capabilities and permit extensive inspections that can verify these limits and ensure that there are no secret nuclear facilities. In short, the final deal will ensure that Iran cannot build a bomb, and if it tried to do so would be quickly caught.

It is possible that the nuclear deal and these related efforts could lead to a broader rapprochement with Tehran that could, in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s words, help the United States and Iran "manage our differences." It might not "resolve" or "overcome" them, but it would more pragmatically manage them the way U.S. officials managed differences with China under Nixon and the Soviet Union under Reagan. The United States could get Iranian cooperation on a score of key U.S. strategic issues including Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

More broadly, rolling back the Iranian program removes the largest perceived nuclear proliferation threat. Although there is no logical connection between the 5,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S.'s active arsenal and the possibility that Iran might someday get one or 10, psychologically and politically there is. If Iran were to become a nuclear-armed state, negotiating reductions in global stockpiles would be much more difficult. Eliminating this threat creates the security conditions necessary for nuclear-armed states to consider reducing obsolete arsenals and for threshold states to refrain from beginning new programs.

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.

To achieve the Nov. 24 first-stage deal, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave Iranian President Hassan Rouhani authority to make tactical adjustments in exchange for sanctions relief. There is little evidence, however, of a strategic shift. In pursuit of a nuclear-hedging strategy, Iran still wants to be able quickly to produce nuclear weapons if and when the Leader decides to take the risk. The terms agreed to in Geneva show that Tehran was willing to negotiate only over how quickly it could have this capability.

Reaching a comprehensive solution will be much harder because it requires each side to reverse measures it has deemed essential. As critics have noted, the Geneva deal does not require Iran to remove or dismantle any of the centrifuges or other equipment that can be used for weapons purposes. The deal was good because freezing capabilities buys time, but all the steps are reversible. This capping now has to be followed by rollback. And rollback is rarely possible in the absence of a strategic policy change.

It has long been clear that direct U.S.-Iran talks were essential to reaching any agreement over the nuclear issue. But talking with the “Great Satan” has long been a political taboo in Tehran. Recall how just two months ago Rouhani couldn’t bring himself to shake Obama’s hand. That taboo now having been broken, we can expect to see deeper and wider engagement. In addition to the nuclear issue at the core of their animosity, Iran and the United States should also talk about issues where interests overlap, including over Afghanistan and narcotics smuggling. Bringing peace to Syria is another common objective, although it will not be easy because Iran’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad clashes with the objectives of America and its allies. U.S. support for Iran’s regional adversaries is another sticking point. Such fundamental differences in geostrategic goals — as well as the distrust built up over the 34 years since Iran’s seizure of the American Embassy — make normalization of relations a distant prospect.

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.

The terms of step one agreed to in Geneva tell us that step two of this deal may very well be our last best chance to achieve a comprehensive solution to the nuclear standoff.

Washington and Tehran are finally showing a willingness to take risks for peace, and that's largely because the remaining conflict-escalation measures available to both sides make war a near certainty. Recognizing that, Obama is capitalizing on the mandate given to Rouhani by the Iranian people to pursue constructive engagement with the world. Just as it did from 2003 to 2005, Rouhani's team has demonstrated its willingness to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program through concrete measures — for the right price.

Looking ahead over the next six months, the United States will have to make some tough choices on lifting sanctions, working with Iran on regional security issues and mapping out a path for Iran to be treated like any other member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We often hear concerns that Tehran will renege on a deal, and that's a fair concern in any negotiation. But we must also consider the possibility that Washington will renege — because if the U.S. doesn't deliver its end of the bargain, it will pull the rug out from under Rouhani's team and render his presidency stillborn. Simply put: If the U.S. doesn't take advantage of Rouhani's flexibility now and help his position solidify in Iran, it will end up dealing with the inflexibility of Iranian hard-liners in six months.  

The significance of a direct U.S.-Iran negotiating channel cannot be overstated. Creating and utilizing such a channel allowed the two sides to hammer out a draft agreement that served as the basis for the interim deal that was signed in Geneva. Utilizing such a channel will be even more critical as the two sides begin hashing out the thornier issues that are on the table in the next phase. Deconstructing an institutionalized enmity that has built up over 34 years is next to impossible in front of cameras or with journalists waiting outside the meeting room.

Decision makers in Washington and Tehran who are leading the diplomatic process must simultaneously protect themselves politically from attacks at home and abroad. To maximize the chances for success, increasing the number of direct private meetings can help avoid many of the common pitfalls that media attention and political infighting bring.

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