Iran and its six negotiating partners have returned to Geneva to try to conclude a deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. Hopes are high after talks earlier this month seemed to nearly reach agreement, only to fall apart at the last minute. Now, participants are trying to keep expectations in line. While progress has been made, agreeing on final details will be difficult given Iran’s red lines, Israel’s opposition, and divisions in Washington.
The “P5+1” talks, which include Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, have been going on for years, with little progress. Doubts continue to swirl around Iran’s intentions, with Tehran insisting that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, while most other nations worry that it is attempting to acquire a capability that will allow it to build a nuclear bomb in a relatively short period of time. Secret facilities, incomplete and inconsistent reports to the international nuclear watchdog and steady progress in its capabilities prompted the United Nations to impose sanctions on Iran that have done great damage to its economy. The progress in the most recent negotiations is thought to have been driven by the toll those measures have taken.
In the last round of talks, a deal seemed imminent, yet agreement ultimately proved elusive when the P5+1 negotiators tightened terms at the last minute and Iran balked at the new conditions. The parties have returned to the table seeking an interim accord that would lay out confidence building steps that would in turn lead to a more substantive, long-term deal.
A key element of the new negotiating framework is a firm idea of where the talks are going. Iran wants a clearly defined process and destination from the outset, so that it can gauge progress. Tangible markers and benchmarks are critical for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: They would allow him to demonstrate that his approach is paying off. The Western preference for an open-ended process that will oblige Tehran to strive to meet its demands risks Rouhani’s credibility at home.
The agreement being contemplated in Geneva would only be an interim deal, one that would test the intentions of both sides. While the abandonment of Iran’s nuclear program is the ultimate goal, as a first step the West wants Iran to cap uranium enrichment at 20 percent purity, to reduce its existing stockpiles of enriched uranium, to stop construction of the heavy-water reactor at Arak — which could produce plutonium, another way of building a nuclear bomb — and permit more inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
For its part, Iran wants recognition of its right to enrich uranium and the end to sanctions that have crippled its economy.
As a compromise, the West would lift some sanctions while Iran would halt developments in its nuclear program and accept the IAEA’s stepped-up inspection. Compliance would be accessed over a six-month period while negotiators continue to work out a comprehensive deal. Iran’s right to enrich uranium — declared nonnegotiable by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — would be acknowledged but Iran would not exercise that right.
Israel and its supporters have objected vociferously to such a deal. They claim that Iran cannot be trusted and any agreement that permits Iran to maintain nuclear weapons capabilities is a nonstarter for them. They want no easing of sanctions until Tehran’s entire nuclear weapons program is scrapped.
Proponents of the deal counter that it is impossible to completely eliminate a weapons capability — knowledge cannot be erased — and that the proper focus is controlling Iran’s ability to make such weapons. They also argue that the lifting of sanctions is only temporary, that the majority of such measures will stay in place, and that the West must give something to show good faith and balance the Iranian concessions.
Recent IAEA reports indicate that Iran has not added major components to the Arak site, and that it has stopped expanding enrichment capabilities since Rouhani took office in August. While the new president is more in the center of Iran’s political spectrum than his hard-line predecessor, he remains vulnerable to attack from his flanks. He needs progress in the nuclear negotiations to shore up support from other parts of the Iranian leadership. Some relief for the hard-pressed Iranian economy would demonstrate that his approach is paying dividends.
Equally powerful domestic political pressures are at work in the U.S., however, and they are pushing Washington toward a harder line. Congress does not like what it is hearing about the negotiations — reportedly the administration is keeping details very close to its chest — and spurred on by Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, it is demanding that no sanctions be lifted and is even pushing to curtail the U.S. president’s authority to waive sanctions if he sees fit. (Such waivers are routine in all sanctions legislation to ensure the executive can test the intentions of negotiating partners.)
Concluding the final details of any nuclear deal will be difficult. There is considerable ill will and distrust among the parties to the negotiation and even greater concern among those left out. Still, a deal has never been closer and it is time to test Tehran.