With the deadline less than a week away for a deal to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, talks between world powers and Tehran resume this week with renewed urgency. The window of opportunity for a historic compromise could be closing as naysayers in Washington and Tehran — not to mention U.S. allies such as Israel, the Gulf Arab states and even possibly France — demand a harder line from their respective sides.
The upcoming Republican takeover of the Senate could hamstring President Barack Obama’s ability to deliver on promised sanctions relief, the key incentive for Iran to cede to Western demands and curtail its nuclear enrichment program beyond what's required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Hawkish U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have threatened to revive a proposal that would impose additional sanctions on Iran if negotiations produce a deal they deem unsatisfactory, citing the existential fear that Iran could furtively divert its nuclear enrichment programs toward more nefarious purposes — namely, a nuclear bomb. These threats from Congress could unravel the delicately constructed nuclear cooperation framework between the West and Iran that has already borne fruit. (The provisional agreement that expires on Monday has seen Iran, over the past year, voluntarily halt enrichment to the more worrisome level of 20 percent and accept further caps and curbs on its nuclear work to reassure Western powers of the program’s nonmilitary intent).
Despite the cooperation of the past year, the technical and political gaps between the negotiators meeting in Vienna remain wide. But according to Ali Vaez, a scientist and an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, “the reality is that both sides want a deal, and no time is better for clinching it than right now.”
What might a viable deal look like?
The world powers at these talks — the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — are essentially looking for a deal that prolongs Iran’s nuclear breakout period, the time it would take for Iran to repurpose its existing civilian nuclear infrastructure and construct a nuclear weapon. That’s an option Tehran insists it has never considered (not to mention that any country with the full-fuel-cycle nuclear energy program permitted under the NPT could theoretically break out and build a weapon if it chose to abandon the treaty).
The U.S., Israel and France once hoped to prevent Tehran from maintaining any uranium-enrichment capability on its own soil, but Iranian enrichment became a fait accompli more than seven years ago. The focus of the current negotiations is on limiting Iran’s enrichment capacity and stockpiles to lengthen the period required — and therefore Western reaction time — for Iran to stockpile the fissile material necessary for a single bomb.
Russia has sought to break the deadlock over enrichment capacity by reintroducing a proposal under which Iran would ship its enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into fuel rods, far more difficult to weaponize, to power Iran’s planned civilian reactors (which Russia hopes to build). That compromise would allow Iran to retain more of its enrichment centrifuges, a key sticking point in negotiations. But it’s not yet clear what compromises are being entertained on the question of enrichment capacity.
How and when will sanctions on Iran be eased?
In exchange for accepting new curbs on its enrichment activity, Iran is demanding rapid relief from various sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union and the U.N. Security Council. But the U.S. sanctions regime will prove tricky to dismantle, since they were enacted by Congress rather than by executive order.
If Congress fails to formally repeal sanctions as promised by Obama in a theoretical deal, the president would have to use executive action to work around those measures. That could prove politically costly for Obama as he wrestles with the Republican-controlled legislature over his domestic agenda.
At the same time, U.S. sanctions on Iran depend predominantly on Washington’s ability to force countries that trade with Tehran to stop doing business. There’s a widely held view among analysts that if Iran is deemed to have made a good-faith effort to resolve the crisis but was stymied by hard-liners in the West, third-party countries such as China and Russia might increasingly ignore the measures demanded by the U.S. The sanctions regime would then begin to unravel, regardless of what Congress decides.
Who else might seek to thwart a deal?
Iran’s regional rivals — Israel and the Gulf Arab states — feel the most threatened by any compromise that would permit Iran to continue enriching uranium (thereby retaining the potential to build a nuclear weapon). But they also fear that any sign of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran would kick-start Iran's reintegration into the international community and shift the Middle East's balance of power.
Israel, which insists that Iran poses an existential threat to its security, has lobbied considerable support in Congress to thwart a nuclear compromise. But the Obama administration has thus far managed to restrain Congress from enacting new sanctions by warning that blocking efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution would put the standoff on a path to war.
Relations between the White House and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have become increasingly strained over the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians, and a top Israeli official on Iran told The New York Times on Monday that Israel had “no formal status and no real capacity” in the talks.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states may be similarly sidelined. That didn't stop Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence head, Prince Turki bin Faisal, from threatening that Riyadh would develop its own enrichment capacity to match Iran’s, warning that a nuclear compromise could hasten a regional nuclear arms race. The Gulf Arab states, according to the Guardian, have influenced France — which has prioritized its commercial ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE — to take the hardest line among the Western powers.
What if there’s no deal?
Diplomats on all sides are talking down prospects of achieving a deal by next Monday, as they are wont to do in such high-stakes negotiations to hedge the public's expectations. According to The New York Times, White House officials have put the chances of finalizing a deal at 40 to 50 percent.
Adnan Tabatabai, a Berlin-based political analyst, said it was more likely that another road map to a final agreement would emerge by Monday’s deadline, with the aim of pushing back the final deadline for a couple of months. But he agreed with many other observers that there has been too much progress over the past year to predict a complete breakdown of talks anytime soon.
A managed U.S.-Iran conflict?
A historic nuclear deal with Iran would mark a rare foreign policy success for Obama in the region. It would, at least initially, stabilize and regularize the U.S.-Iran conflict, if not resolve it.
“Thirty-five years of enmity between Iran and the U.S. cannot be erased overnight,” said Vaez. “Iran and the U.S. might have tactical agreements, but they have strategic differences in the region. A nuclear deal is not going to change the fundamentals of this dynamic.”
But Tabatabai said one consequence of these talks is that the U.S. and Iran “have at least learned to acknowledge the pressures the other faces at home. So there can be more room for concessions or compromise and less of a tendency to have maximalist demands that neither side can deliver.”
He characterized the state of U.S.-Iran relations as a boxing match in which the sides have agreed to wear gloves so as not to break each other’s noses as they fight.
In an unprecedented gesture last month, Obama wrote a letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, urging him to overcome their countries’ long-standing hostility and embrace a nuclear deal. Meanwhile, many analysts suspect Washington and Tehran have secretly coordinated to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant insurgency, which threatens to destabilize the entire region.
“Complete normalization [between the U.S. and Iran] is not going to happen with or without a deal,” Tabatabai added, “but maybe there can be cooperation on the most severe conflicts in the region that doesn’t have to be addressed in public.”