Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Commendable Progress, Persistent Obstacles

Negotiators have made commendable progress in their effort to reach a comprehensive agreement. Yet disagreements on sanctions relief, inspections and centrifuge research could still prove insurmountable.

There are few ironclad rules of diplomacy’, wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, save that ‘when an official reports that talks were useful, it can safely be concluded that nothing was accomplished’. Until last Thursday (2 April 2015), the Lausanne talks on Iran’s nuclear programme seemed to adhere to such logic. Vague promises of ‘progress’ substituted for concrete details of agreement, leading most analysts to conclude that the negotiations were floundering. The unveiling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) now justifies the negotiators’ aversion to publicity.

On the key issues of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and its enriched stockpile, the agreement holds great promise. Redesign and conversion of the Arak heavy water reactor should preclude a plutonium based pathway to weaponisation. The Natanz enrichment site would remain operational, but with only 5,060 operational IR-1 centrifuges. The previously covert facility at Fordow would remain operational, but would be stripped of its enrichment capacity and emptied of fissile material.

In addition, Iran’s possession of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) would be capped at 300kg of 3.67 per cent, mandating the elimination, sale or dilution of the vast majority of its current holdings. Underpinning all restrictions would be a comprehensive IAEA inspections regime, monitoring not only Iran’s nuclear sites, but its uranium mines and centrifuge production facilities. In the words of former US negotiator William Burns, there would be ‘more eyes on less material in fewer places’. If these terms are fulfilled, the P5+1 should secure their core goal: extending Iran’s breakout timeline to twelve months

Such understandings form the basis of what could be a workable agreement. However, specific barriers have yet to be surmounted. If the finished accord is to prove durable, each will need to be overcome. The central weakness of the JCPOA is that it excludes agreement on the sequencing of sanctions relief. The fact sheet produced by the White House envisions the lifting of nuclear related UN sanctions as Iran submits to new restrictions. However, the Iranians have already contested that interpretation, reiterating Iran’s demand for swift and immediate sanctions relief.

In addition, the intrusiveness of inspections has yet to be finalised. Though the Lausanne negotiations produced a mutually acceptable formula – ‘enhanced access’ in accordance with a  return to the IAEA’s additional protocol – they failed to clarify whether any military sites would remain off-limits, or if advanced notification would be required before inspections could take place. The prospect of unfettered access is seen as humiliating by Tehran, which regards itself as being in compliance with the NPT, and thus undeserving of being singled out for a uniquely intrusive regime.  Yet for Washington and its partners, access of that kind is a pre-requisite to ensuring that Iran is not reneging on any one of the restrictions that form part of the deal. How these competing perspectives are to be reconciled is yet to be seen.

Perhaps most important of all is continuing uncertainty over the scale of nuclear research and development Iran will be permitted to undertake during the life of the agreement. The White House’s interpretation of the evolving JCPOA assumes ‘limited research and development’ with a prohibition on the use of advanced centrifuges for uranium enrichment. By contrast, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has suggested that Iran would be at liberty to begin injecting UF6 gas into IR-8 centrifuges from the first day of the deal. Though not technically incompatible statements, such starkly varying emphasis ought to fill negotiators with a sense of foreboding as their discussions progress from generalities to technicalities.

Underlying the issue of advanced centrifuges is the question of ‘out year’ projections – namely, the condition Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will be in once restrictions on its freedom to enrich expire. P5+1 negotiators have yet to comment on their plans for the ‘post-deal’ period, and it remains unclear whether efforts would be made to extend the finished agreement based upon the implicit threat of sanctions being re-imposed Unless addressed in the next three months, such uncertainty will likely undermine support for the agreement, by empowering those who argue that the deal can only delay a nuclear-armed Iran, not prevent it.

The negotiations themselves have always resembled a Rubik’s Cube, in which the resolution of each aspect of the talks is connected to resolution of another. As a result of intense and protracted negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 appear to have finally assembled a combination of solutions capable of satisfying all sides, a success that should not be belittled. However, the current understanding only represents a stepping stone to a finalised agreement. Should any aspect of the current understanding falter, or should unresolved issues prove intractable, efforts to complete the overall puzzle are likely to fail. As negotiators celebrate their successes, such obstacles loom on the horizon. 



Timothy Stafford

Research Analyst, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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