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Iran’s nuclear programme has been temporarily capped. But the details of the endgame remain shrouded in uncertainty. How do we get from here to there?
In a previous piece of analysis, I examined the content of, and reaction to, the historic Geneva agreement agreed between Iran and the E3+3 (Britain, France, Germany plus the United States, Russia, and China) on 24 November. But where do we go from here?
One of Israel’s greatest – if mistaken – fears about the agreement with Iran is that this short-term deal will harden into a long-term one, legitimating a large Iranian nuclear programme. The agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program is worded carefully to preclude this: although its six-month duration is renewable, it also commits both parties ‘to conclude negotiating and commence implementing’ a final deal within a year’. But bridging the gap between the interim period and a longer-term settlement will prove exceptionally difficult.
An Endgame in Three Acts
Three phases of the agreement
For one thing, the endgame is clearer than it was – but still opaque. To understand this, we should divide the agreement into three phases.
First comes the six-month period of the interim deal itself. Next week, experts from the E3+3 will meet with Iranian counterparts to finalise the deal’s implementation, and therefore when this six-month period is to begin. Iranian officials have said it will begin in January. This period is ‘renewable by mutual consent’, though, as I discuss below, this would surely precipitate a new push for new sanctions and would clash with the commitment to reach a final deal within a year.
Second is the ‘comprehensive agreement’. During this period, Iran is granted ‘a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures’, and all sanctions are lifted. It is crucial to note that this is not, technically, a final status because it is to last only ‘for a period to be agreed upon’. This is a concession from Iran, which wanted to fix precisely how long it would be bound by these limits. Jofi Joseph, until recently the NSC’s top Iran official and participant in talks with Iran, has suggested that Western powers might push for something ‘on the order of twenty or even thirty years’, in part on the basis that Iran would be likely to have evolved in a more positive political direction over such a long period. Other analysts from E3+3 member states have suggested more modest periods of only a few years. But what is clear is that while the Geneva agreement calls this the ‘final step’, it’s actually more like parole.
This defined period may be defined temporally, but it will also likely be linked to a so-called ‘broader conclusion’ from the IAEA that no military nuclear activities are continuing within Iran. But once any such conditions are met and this period concludes, the Geneva agreement is clear that ‘the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT’. This implies that the ‘practical limits’ of the comprehensive agreement will disappear. Iran will be free to modify or develop its nuclear programme as it wishes, within the terms of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
From interim period to comprehensive agreement
Negotiating the second of these phases, the comprehensive agreement, is the hard part. Iran has been granted a conditional right to enrich, however much the US insists otherwise and Iran spins that it’s ‘inalienable’. It gets to enrich within ‘mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon’. This is an inventive compromise that allows both sides to come away claiming victory. But those ‘parameters’ will be hotly debated.
Take ‘practical needs’, for instance. Iran has in the past claimed it will build 10-20 nuclear power stations. Indeed, just as the Geneva agreement was being finalized, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced that it was now considering the second and third of these (after the Russian-built Bushehr). In a November 2013 interview with the Financial Times, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared, ‘how much we will expand enrichment or … how big the size is going to be will depend on our needs for nuclear fuel’. Western powers are unlikely to accept either the enrichment capacity or enriched uranium stockpile commensurate with such a programme – it would involve an expansion of Iran’s present enrichment – and will instead ask that Iran import its fuel, as it does for Bushehr.
How much enrichment is too much? Iran presently has over 19,000 centrifuges installed and over 10,000kg of uranium enriched to less than 5%, with which it can ‘break out’ – produced sufficient High Enriched Uranium (HEU) for one bomb – in around two months. Western powers would want that time to lengthen to a year, at the very least. As Scott Kemp has explained in graph form, that would mean both centrifuge numbers and the enriched uranium stockpile must fall to a fraction of their present levels: one option would be 2,000 IR-1 centrifuges and 800kg of enriched uranium, roughly what Iran possessed before 2008, and even fewer centrifuges if any were to be more efficient second-generation variants.
The Arms Control Association’s Darryl Kimball has proposed ‘no more than 3,000-4,000 centrifuges’. The Financial Times cites Western officials as claiming that Israel is pushing for ‘between 1,000 and 2,000’. These figures would be compatible with a wide range of breakout times depending on how much enriched uranium Iran retained; it makes little sense to think about centrifuges alone.
For those who wanted Iranian enrichment to stop altogether – including Israel, and many in the US Congress – this will be as unacceptably large a programme as it would be unacceptably small for Iranian hardliners. Iranian officials have frequently emphasised that their priority is on the principle of enrichment rather than the level and amount, and this long-held point of emphasis will constrain their rhetorical and bargaining options over the next six months. In practice, most foreign suppliers of civil nuclear technology would also be wary of signing contracts with Iran that did not include strict provisions on how fuel was handled – and therefore Iran’s energy needs are presently zero. Iran might agree to maintain a small fuel-manufacturing programme as an insurance policy against disruption of foreign supplies, whilst accepting that most of its fuel would be imported. But the psychology of loss aversion makes it harder to accept large reversals in enrichment capability. For Iranians, the reference point for the nuclear program is 2013; for the E3+3, it might be 2002, when Iran’s enrichment programme was in its nascent stages. Bridging this gap will be the most time consuming aspect of the next six months’ diplomacy.
After the comprehensive agreement
Once the comprehensive agreement expires – whether it lasts for years or decades – there might then be further haggling. The agreement says Iran ‘will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT’. Iran is sure to argue that this means the removal of all limits, whereas Western powers could point out that many NPT members voluntarily accept restrictions on their programs, and that Iran should do so too. Much would depend, here, on how Iran’s political system had evolved in the interim period. If Iran had progressed in a more democratic direction and was on better terms with the world and its neighbours, Western concern would diminish greatly.
In addition to the deeply-buried Fordow enrichment plant, the long-term status of Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak will be especially problematic. Iran will claim that its decision to forego reprocessing (necessary to separate plutonium from spent fuel) is a sufficient safeguard. Additionally, as Jofi Joseph notes, ‘Iran may argue that its continued operation during a CBM [interim] phase establishes a precedent for its permanent acceptance’; indeed, that Arak safeguards are even mentioned in the Geneva agreement might be seen to imply that activation will occur at some point. But the West will want Iran to dismantle the whole thing or – something alluded to in the Geneva agreement – convert it into a more proliferation resistant light water reactor (something that some experts caution would mean dismantling the whole thing and building a new facility).
But if and when the IAEA declares with confidence that there are no military nuclear activities occurring in Iran, imposing these limits may prove impossible. Even if Iran did convert Arak into a light water reactor, then it would theoretically have the right to build a heavy water reactor when these limits expired. This is not going to sit well with some in the E3+3, like France, who raised a storm on the issue of Arak in the first round of Geneva talks earlier this month, but others, like Russia, might see significant commercial opportunities in giving Iran more latitude.
Ultimately, Iran will not accept any agreement in which it is treated as an unequal member of the NPT. This is why the Geneva agreement sensibly includes the promise of extensive ‘international civil nuclear cooperation’, which would incentivise Iran to limit its nuclear programme voluntarily even after a comprehensive deal expires. To the extent that a democratic Iran on better terms with the world will be viewed in less threatening terms, non-nuclear rapprochement – however distant it is now – would also reinforce confidence in Iran after limits expired.
Finally, even if the two sides could find common ground on a final status, each side would face domestic political obstacles to a deal. Thus far, Iranian hardliners have largely withheld their reservations, perhaps because of the imprimatur given to the agreement by the Supreme Leader. But there is disagreement within Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, around its authority over a permanent accord. The spokesperson for Majlis’ presiding board has argued that what is confirmed by the Supreme Leader doesn’t need to be confirmed by parliament, but others have protested this judgment and pointed out that Article 77 of Iran’s constitution requires parliamentary approval (all links in Persian).
At the very least, the Majlis would have to ratify Iran’s Additional Protocol, an agreement between Iran and the IAEA that allows intrusive inspections that the Khatami government signed in 2003 but later disavowed. Moreover, the interim agreement specifies that only ‘nuclear-related’ sanctions will be lifted in the comprehensive agreement: although these impose the greatest economic cost on Iran, many Iranian legislators may not have realised that a number of non-nuclear sanctions, pertaining to terrorism and human rights, will remain in place.
On the other side, the US Congress has expressed bipartisan scepticism towards the interim deal, and many legislators seem to think, mistakenly, that it can or will lead to the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program. Given that the agreement is arguably this administration’s most significant foreign policy achievement to date, and that new sanctions would explicitly violate its terms, President Obama is certain to veto any sanctions bill that Congress passes.
A presidential veto over a foreign policy subject would require a two-thirds veto in both the House and the Senate (for international readers: lower and upper houses of the US legislative branch, respectively), but this has not happened since Congress’ overturning of sanctions imposed by President Reagan in 1986 over apartheid in South Africa – today, Obama would require just thirty-four senators to remain loyal.
But if a sanctions bill provides for conditional sanctions triggered after the six month interim period is up – as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez has proposed – then a veto might meet with greater bipartisan resistance. Any attempt by the E3+3 or Iran to renew this agreement would be seen in Congress as a troubling sign that the US and Iran were colluding to turn this into a permanent agreement, despite the US’ protestations to the contrary. As Michael Krepon notes, the lesson from Cold War arms control is that follow-on accords should be negotiated as quickly as possible to avoid spoilers disrupting the process.
More importantly, given that current sanctions involve not just 16 executive orders but also nine congressional acts, a comprehensive agreement might require that Congress pass new legislation, which in turn would require that they consent to whatever compromise Iran and the E3+3 arrive at on the list of outstanding issues discussed earlier. Presidential authority to waive sanctions can be used in the first stages of a comprehensive agreement, but eventually Iran would need to see irreversible steps being taken. Meanwhile, plenty of legislators are going to take issue with the fact that issues like Iran’s missile programme have gone unaddressed, and will seek to impose unrealistic conditions onto the E3+3 that go beyond the terms of the roadmap agreed this weekend.
The interim agreement has put Iran further from a nuclear weapon, demonstrated that the US and Iran are capable of holding sustained and effective high-level talks, untied one of the greatest knots in the dispute – Iran’s claimed right to enrich – and established an ambitious timeline for resolving the dispute as a whole. It is an elegant diplomatic fix. But nearly all of the details are yet to be filled in, and even then the political hurdles to a final deal are daunting.
This text is adapted from an earlier article at Foreign Policy’s Middle East channel.