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A Deadline, and a Closing Window
Last November, six world powers, grouped into the E3/EU+3, and Iran agreed a so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). This committed Iran to freezing much of its nuclear activity in exchange for limited sanctions relief from the West. That deal expired on 24 November.
Although diplomats are free to keep talking after that date, the problem is that neither side will any longer be bound by these constraints. Iran will be free to resume higher-level enrichment, and the United States to impose fresh sanctions. Lawmakers in both capitals will agitate for their governments to do precisely this, even if Presidents Obama and Rouhani want more time. That would take us back to 2011-2013, where fears of Iran approaching an Israeli redline gave rise to fears of a sudden attack (British forces were put on high alert in early 2011 when intelligence estimates put the chance of war ‘up to 50 per cent’).
While diplomats acknowledge that great progress has been made in the past year – more than in the previous decade put together – there remain crucial gaps, notably over (1) the amount of enrichment that Iran will be permitted to undertake, (2) how long Iran will be bound by any restrictions, and (3) the sequence of sanctions relief.
Most therefore predict that negotiators will seek an extension of a few months, and perhaps even a 'framework agreement' that pins down the areas of consensus. If this is the path chosen, they should know that they would face a rapidly closing window for dialogue, one that might snap shut by spring 2015 at the latest. Although Obama might be able to veto Congress’ attempts at new sanctions, it is less clear whether Iran’s Supreme Leader, who has notably kept hardliners in check thus far, would give Rouhani the latitude to keep the nuclear programme frozen.
Contours of a Deal
As for the content of a deal, the two sides are within touching distance. Consider one crucial aspect. Iran could produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb – although not the bomb itself – in less than two months, a scenario known as 'breakout'. The West wants to extend this to at least a year. As part of any deal, Russia seems likely to ship out Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to create fuel rods but, even if we assume Iran starts with no enriched uranium, Iran would still have to cut its number of first-generation centrifuges down to just over 5,000 if the breakout time is to stretch to the desired year. Iran currently has roughly 18,000 (8,000 are inactive, but this doesn’t matter for these calculations). According to the Associated Press, the highest US offer is 4,500 and the lowest Iranian one is 8,000. Other reports and sources suggest a higher US offer, of 6,000 centrifuges, and a lower Iranian one, of 6-7,000.
These details sound arcane, but the takeaway is simple: the devil nay no longer be in the detail. If we assume a 6,000-centrifuge compromise, then we still end up with a 10-month breakout time. Iranian breakout would be detected within days, leaving ample time for a diplomatic and, if necessary, military response. The insistence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that this would leave Iran at the 'nuclear threshold' is not credible.
It is equally important to remember that an obsession with centrifuge numbers can come at the expense of attention to covert routes to the bomb, which can only be closed off through broad, intrusive inspections. The real challenge here is that Iran must commit to the politically toxic step of dismantling thousands of its machines, because merely disconnecting some piping, unless made extremely time-consuming to reverse, does not buy significant time. But even if the E3+3 had allowed Iran to keep all its operating centrifuges, this would still have been a problem, given Iran’s plethora of inactive but installed machines.
Centrifuges aside, the issue of sanctions relief is proving to be particularly thorny. The US is offering the release of blocked funds and temporary sanctions waivers, with more permanent sanctions relief – requiring the approval of an intransigent Congress – further down the line. Iran is understandably wary of limited and reversible measures, not least because the economic benefits are one of its primary motives for negotiating a deal in the first place. If the E3/EU+3 really wants, as reported 'banking, energy and UN sanctions in place until the deal expires', then this is a needlessly harsh position.
Assuming that these and other differences are bridged, what will be its regional implications?
A deal is not the same thing as rapprochement. The US’ regional allies – Gulf states, Israel, and Turkey – all fear that a deal might enable further US-Iran alignment at their expense. These concerns were heightened by a secret letter from President Obama to Ayatollah Khamenei, reportedly implying that a deal would enable cooperation against ISIL, as well as Obama’s explicit admission that he wants a 'political conversation' on Syria to include Iran. Last month, the US envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition acknowledged that 'we have welcomed Iran’s constructive role in Iraq', and 'we are going to continue to listen very carefully to the things they have to say'.
Nevertheless, the administration likely understands that sudden, overt collaboration with Iran would cause Arab allies to peel away from his military coalition in Syria, and complicate efforts to stand up armed Sunni forces in ISIL-afflicted parts of Iraq as part of a so-called national guard. Moreover, any meaningful US-Iran dialogue is premised on the US talking directly to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who oversee Iran’s extensive interventions in Syria and Iraq, or the Supreme Leader handing over the portfolio to Iran’s more pragmatic foreign ministry. Neither scenario seems especially likely, and so the idea of US-Iran cooperation – whether one fears of welcomes it – is likely to outstrip the reality, in the months after any deal.
The reverse, however, is more worrying: if diplomacy collapses, the negotiating window slides shut, and Iran’s nuclear programme starts re-expanding, the prospect of an Israeli or American war against comes back into the picture, except this time both Tehran and Washington are already committed to open-ended campaigns, on multiple fronts, and, in Iraq, against the same adversary.
Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI