The interim nuclear accord negotiated between Iran and six world powers almost a year ago de-escalated a standoff that once seemed headed for a military confrontation: Seeking sanctions relief, Iran has eliminated the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium that could more rapidly be converted to bomb materiel, and has stopped enrichment to that grade; it has trimmed its supply of low-enriched uranium and has accepted more intrusive international inspections.
Meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials have become more commonplace, and the two sides have even tacitly cooperated in helping the Iraqi government fend off the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant movement. But that interim agreement expires on Nov. 24, and as U.S. and Iranian negotiators who reconvened in Vienna on Tuesday face a number of major obstacles in their six-week race to conclude a final agreement.
Secretary of State John Kerry meets his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday, along with European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton. That meeting will be followed later in the week by a gathering of representatives from the so-called P5+1 group — the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and the United Kingdom — which has been negotiating with Iran.
Last November’s deal had actually set a July deadline for a final agreement, but that was postponed for four months when the two sides expressed confidence in being able to reach a deal if given further time. But while Iranian and U.S. officials remain publicly optimistic, serious gaps remain between the demands of the two sides, and many officials and analysts question whether a permanent accord can be reach by the deadline.
“It is almost certain that a full-fledged agreement by Nov. 24 is no longer in the cards,” said Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, in an email. “What is still possible is a breakthrough that could justify adding more time to the diplomatic clock.”
Gary Samore, a former Obama administration official involved with negotiations and now at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, echoed that view.
“I expect an effort will be made, as we get down to the deadline, to see if there's a basis for another partial agreement,” Samore said in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations. “Both sides will have an interest in trying to see whether it's possible to work out an extension, because the status quo, even though it's not perfect, is certainly tolerable,” he said.
The most contentious issue remains the scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity.
Last year’s interim agreement (PDF) calls for a final accord containing a “mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical-needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities.”
But agreement on Iran’s “practical needs,” as well as on the timeframe and scope of sanctions relief, continues to elude negotiators.
Although the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory, allows the development of full fuel cycle nuclear programs — including uranium enrichment — for civilian purposes, the U.S. and its allies fear that Tehran could use infrastructure permitted by the NPT to eventually break out of the treaty and build nuclear weapons. As a result, they are demanding that Iran accept restrictions on its nuclear work beyond those required by the NPT, in order to create greater safeguards against any “breakout” toward weaponization. Iran, which denies that it seeks nuclear weapons, says it wants only a civilian nuclear energy program and relief from sanctions that have placed a major hindrance on its economic growth.
But while much of the focus in the current negotiations concerns the technical elements, including the scope of sanctions relief and number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to retain under such a deal, the negotiating environment is heavily conditioned by political dynamics.
In its report from August, the International Crisis Group noted, “The struggle over the number of centrifuges is a surrogate for a more basic one: The Iranian revolution was predicated on rejecting outside powers’ dictates after a century of Western intervention in Iranian affairs; for the West, its concerns are founded on Iran’s behavior as an anti-status quo, revolutionary power.”
“The problem is that both sides are more driven by how to sell a deal to their domestic skeptics than how to get a deal,” said Vaez, who added that the “parties have never been closer to clinching a landmark agreement” despite the major roadblocks that remain.
Domestic constituencies hostile to compromise remain strong on both the Iranian and U.S. sides, and a delay in concluding an agreement increases the opportunities for spoilers to win the day.
Iran’s pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani was elected in June 2013 with a mandate to repair relations with the international community, but Tehran’s executive decision making — including over the terms of the any nuclear deal — remains in the hands of the clerical Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although he remains fiercely suspicious of the U.S. and its allies, Khamenei also recognizes that Iran’s economy desperately needs relief from the chokehold of sanctions. Still, the Ayatollah will be loathe to be seen as making concessions to the U.S., while the hardline camp of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to agitate against nuclear compromise.
A sizable bloc of opinion in Washington also remains dubious of compromise with Iran, while U.S. regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia have both publicly questioned the Obama administration’s rapprochement with their Iranian rival.
Efforts remain underway in Congress to increase sanctions pressure on Iran and to set tougher terms for any agreement than those demanded by the administration.
The most prominent of these is the 2013 Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which President Barack Obama’s administration has threatened to veto but which is backed by a majority of senators. A previous effort to bring that bill to the floor while talks were underway was narrowly defeated, as members of Obama’s own party agreed to put a vote on hold while diplomacy ran its course. Many experts concur with the Obama administration’s warning that if enacted, the bill would effectively derail negotiations and plunge the situation into an uncertain limbo that risked renewed escalation.
Beyond the challenge of winning domestic political backing for a deal, it remains unclear whether the international backing required to keep the current sanctions regime in place can be sustained. The Ukraine crisis, for example, split the countries of the P5+1, with the Western powers lining up on one side and Russia and China on the other. Moscow is also now a target of Western sanctions, and has begun expanding its commercial ties with Iran — as is China, which has also recently engaged in joint military exercises with Iran’s navy.
“Obviously, the Iranian economy would do much better if all nuclear-related sanctions were suspended, particularly those that constrict the banking and energy sectors,” wrote Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council. “But Iran is used to muddling through and has probably already withstood the worst of the U.S.-led sanctions regime. Even if the U.S. imposes new penalties on Iran should no deal be reached by Nov. 24, it is unlikely that other nations will follow — particularly if Iran is perceived to have put forward a reasonable solution to the nuclear crisis.”
For now, regional trends, primarily in context of the ISIL’s surge across Iraq and Syria, could unwittingly provide breathing room for negotiations on the Iran nuclear question as potential spoilers are distracted, or the cleavages between traditional enemies are temporarily papered over. But few analysts doubt the urgency of the next six weeks on getting to a deal.
“If the parties fail to lay the ground work for that breakthrough during the trilateral meeting this week, they should start pondering about Plan B,” said Vaez. Fashioning a further accord short of a comprehensive deal may well become the focus of negotiations for the remaining six weeks of the present agreement.