Martial Trezzini / Keystone / AP

Three red herrings recur in coverage of Iran nuclear talks

While negotiators raced to meet a self-imposed deadline, some media questions obscure rather than clarify

Negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland, worked through the night into Tuesday as a March 31 deadline loomed for Iran and six world powers to conclude a final agreement on Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

As the parties struggled to resolve outstanding issues including differences over the scope and time frame of sanctions relief for Iran, and of the scope of restrictions it would accept on its nuclear work that it continues to undertake, some of the coverage of the diplomatic process has rested heavily on misconceptions. 

Herewith, three pointers to bear in mind:

1. Deadlines come, and deadlines go

The deadline has been typically described in media reports as "self-imposed," which it is — but March 31 is not, in fact, the agreed deadline for an agreement. The official deadline for finalizing a comprehensive accord is June 30, after which the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreed upon last November will expire. That's the more important deadline, since under the JPOA, Iran has voluntarily — and verifiably — accepted sharp reductions in the scope of its current nuclear work in order to create a climate of trust for ongoing negotiations. If that deadline passes, as the November 2013 deadline did in November 2014, the parties would then be forced to renegotiate terms or else crank up their leverage on one another — sanctions pressure on Tehran, the pressure on the West of escalating Iranian uranium enrichment. Last November they chose to extend. Their choice this time remains to be seen.

But the choice will arise not on Tuesday, but in June.

“The March 31 deadline for reaching an understanding was self-imposed and can be self-postponed,” wrote Mark Fitzpatrick of The International Institute for Strategic Studies

The greater significance of Tuesday's deadline resides in the the opposition to, or skepticism of a deal on Capitol Hill, including from members of President Barack Obama’s own party.

Hostile legislators have warned they will not wait for the June 30 deadline, and will seek to pass new sanctions on Iran should the Obama administration not be able to demonstrate satisfactory progress in the talks by this week. The more relevant date, in that respect, could be April 14, when Congress is scheduled to return from its Easter recess and take up debate on new sanctions.

Obama has vowed to veto any sanctions while diplomatic efforts remain underway, having warned that new measures would effectively end the talks. But the Obama administration’s room to maneuver given domestic opposition and skepticism may be fast narrowing. More than anything, the March 31 date is a U.S. political deadline, which all sides at the talks understand.  

Even if a deal is reached this week, that does not necessarily ensure a final agreement by the June deadline. A political framework could be concluded Tuesday, but efforts to conclude the technical details of a deal may still in come up short in the summer.

2. 'Breakout time' is not what it seems

The agreement currently being negotiated would leave Iran with a civilian nuclear infrastructure that could be diverted toward making a bomb if Tehran made a political decision to seek nuclear weapons, expelled inspectors and broke out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran insists it does not seek nuclear weapons, and an international intelligence consensus holds that Tehran has made no decision to pursue a strategic nuclear capability. But doubts remain over its ultimate intent, which is why the the deal focuses on strengthening safeguards against Iran seeking to weaponize nuclear material. That's why so much has been made of the “breakout time” Iran would require, using infrastructure it retains under the deal, to produce sufficient fissile material for a single bomb.

Currently, Iran’s breakout time is estimated to be less than six months, and as little as two months, according to the Congressional Research Service, whereas the U.S. and its negotiating partners have set a one-year breakout period as the goal of a deal.

But breakout time can be a misleading metric by which to judge a deal.

For one thing, having sufficient material for use in a bomb is not the same as having a ready-to-use nuclear device. Besides the fissile material, a bomb would require a sophisticated system to engineer the bomb's core, and the explosive trigger, both in miniaturized form to fit atop a missile or some equivalent workable delivery system. That process, according to Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, could take an additional six to 18 months.

Moreover, one bomb does not a nuclear deterrent make. Every nuclear-weapons power to date has built a number of bombs before announcing its capability by testing one. The use of the time-period required to obtain enough fissile material for a single bomb is an arbitrary measure, of little real-world value. 

"Breaking out" by using known infrastructure may also be the less likely path should Iran choose to pursue nuclear weapons. While any agreement would entail onerous inspection and verification standards for known Iranian facilities such as Natanz and Fordow, Tehran could acquire a bomb through a covert program, a so-called “sneak-out” maneuver.

As Vaez wrote, “Fixation on a possible breakout distracts from the greater risk of a sneak-out and therefore from the two main safeguards for preventing one: transparency and monitoring.”

3. After the sun sets on the deal ...

It is not uncommon to hear political opponents of a deal and media pundits complaining that once the term limits of the proposed agreement — somewhere between 10 and 15 years — expire, it would leave Iran free to build a bomb, free of international monitoring and restraints. 

The JPOA states: “Following successful implementation of the final step of the comprehensive solution for its full duration, the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]."

To some critics of a deal, such as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that's tantamount Is to letting Iran have a nuclear weapon in the future as long as it bides its time and refrains from cheating on a deal in the meantime.

But the NPT itself, to which Tehran is a signatory, already subjects Iran to constant monitoring by international inspectors to detect any move to weaponize nuclear material. And, part of the negotiating process has involved Iran signaling a willingness to sign the Treaty's Additional Protocol which strengthens the inspection regime. Iran previously signed that protocol, but stopped adhering to it in 2006 after talks fell apart during the Bush administration.

It is possible that after a given period, Iran would decide to shirk its commitments to the NPT or IAEA safeguards. But proponents of a deal contend that this remains true whether a deal is reached or not, but that the status quo provides far less verification and transparency, and lacks any limits on the time frame to delay Iran’s nuclear program.

Indeed, the current talks are about what restrictions Iran is willing to accept over and above those required by the NPT in order to assuage international concerns. When the deal sunsets, it reverts to the NPT and Additional Protocols, not an open road to nuclear weapons.

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