Two separate but closely related meetings took place on Wednesday. One involved US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have been at the head of these negotiations since they began a year and a half ago. The other included Helga Schmid, the European Union’s deputy head of foreign policy, as well as two individuals who were profiled on Wednesday in a Wall Street Journal article emphasizing their shared background in the MIT physics program.
That article pointed out that Ali Akbar Salehi, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran head who held talks with Schmid and US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, is a source of some concern for Western diplomats. Although Salehi is now reputed to be crucial to the completion of the talks, he has also been closely linked to the possible military dimensions of the Iranian military program.
The concealment of that questionable past nuclear work has been cited as a persistent sticking point in the negotiations. A parallel probe of possible military dimensions by the International Atomic Energy Agency has not gotten past the first of twelve questions, and IAEA officials have repeatedly criticized Tehran for its refusal to fully cooperate.
Salehi is suspected of having reason to evade scrutiny for work that he has participated in. But he has also reportedly said that the negotiations are 90 percent complete and that only one issue remains to be settled. This assessment was disputed by a senior European negotiator, according to Reuters. The diplomat implied that in fact it seems unlikely that the current negotiations will be completed at all in time for the framework deadline.
But this may not prevent Western powers from pushing ahead toward the June 30 deadline for a final agreement, as Reuters quotes Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid Baidinejad as saying that if there is a framework agreement in March, it will not be in writing. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly dismissed the plan for pursuing two deadlines, and the lack of a written framework may allow Khamanei’s supporters to claim victory while Western officials also claim that the framework has been established verbally, even if not in writing.
If this is the approach that they take, it will arguably not be the first instance of exploiting the vagueness of public expectations for the talks. Much of the US Congress and some of the media have been referring to a March 24 deadline, based on the fact that the extension of a previous November 24 deadline was said to be for four months. But recently, negotiators have made it clear that they do not consider the current deadline to be until the last day of the month.
Even with this additional week of leeway, the outcome is evidently in doubt. The Obama administration this week declared that the chances of reaching a deal were only about 50 percent. And the unnamed European negotiator quoted by Reuters said on Thursday, “We are not close to an agreement.”
The primary reason for these persistent troubles is Iranian intransigence, and the negotiator indicates that in order to finish the process the Iranians must seriously limit their demands, especially their demands for the ability to continue engaging in advanced research and development that could dramatically decrease their breakout time for a nuclear weapon in the future.
It is all that much more remarkable that the Iranians are making demands that are considered unreasonable or non-starters by Western diplomats, given that those same diplomats have been widely criticized for giving too many concessions too Tehran already. The United States began negotiations last year with the demand that Iran cut its current infrastructure of uranium enrichment centrifuges from approximately 10,000 to 1,500. That number gradually crept up in subsequent months, and according to the Associated Press the draft agreement that is currently on the table allows Iran to retain about 60 percent of its infrastructure, or 6,000 centrifuges.
The Tower says of this draft agreement that its signing “would remove economic sanctions and all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities in as little as ten years, while allowing the country to continue operating thousands of centrifuges.”
The Obama administration defends the draft by insisting that critics are too narrowly focused upon the number of centrifuges while other factors are also important to constraining Iran’s nuclear ability and lengthening its breakout time. But it is unclear how these additional factors have been addressed. The AP and The Tower both agree that there are a variety of outstanding issues that likely have not been resolved in time for the draft agreement.
Iran reportedly insists on continuing uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow facility and refuses to convert the Arak heavy water facility into a light water facility that would close off the nation’s possible plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon. The emerging agreement also fails to address Iran’s ballistic missile stockpiles, which would serve as delivery systems for nukes. Furthermore, the AP notes that restrictions upon Iranian arms transfers may be among the first sanctions to be alleviated following the conclusion of an agreement. And this dovetails with the issue of the regime’s support for global terrorist groups – something that has deliberately not been addressed during negotiations.
Observations like these add to concerns about the emerging deal among members of Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other opponents of the Iranian regime. Some of these opponents have been aggressively presenting their case against Obama’s negotiating tactics, especially in recent weeks. Some Republican Congressmen insisted last week that the legislature would be able to overturn a deal unilaterally.
The Obama administration has pushed back against this opposition to its efforts, but it has also occasionally signaled willingness to take a harder line with Iran, if and only if the current negotiations fail to produce a viable solution. On Thursday, Reuters quoted Adam Szubin, the acting head of Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, as saying that the administration would work closely with Congress in order to quickly impose severe new economic sanctions on Iran if it obstructed the talks or violated its agreements.
Szubin added that the relief of sanctions associated with a successful agreement would only be offered gradually and only if Iran proves its compliance at every stage. Such verification is one of the provisions of a bill that is pending in the US Senate, which would also require congressional approval of any deal.
The administration may find that it is necessary to indicate common cause with this legislation, as CNS News suggests that a policy of cutting Congress out of the process and demanding deference to presidential negotiating authority has been self-defeating. The conservative news source notes that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act has only acquire more co-sponsors, including Democrats, since the president has promised to veto it and appealed to party loyalty on this issue.
In keeping with Congress’s general adversarial approach to the Iranian regime, the bill also goes beyond the nuclear issue by calling for periodic proof that Tehran has not “directly supported, financed, planned, or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States.”
Many congressional critics of the Obama administration have taken issue with the neglect of these broader issues in the midst of focus on the Iranian nuclear program. And these objections are poised to get louder in light of the news that the draft agreement may lead to early removal of sanctions on Iranian arms shipments – a feature that is likely linked to the Obama administration’s efforts to effectively partner with Iran against the Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Iran’s support of terrorism and its contribution to sectarian conflicts also face renewed relevance in light of the fact that, as FrontPage Mag points out, March marks the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian Civil War, which continues to rage today in large part because of the Iranian regime’s support for the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, a situation that has given Tehran and its Revolutionary Guards nearly direct control over affairs in secure Syrian territory.
The prospect of legal Iranian weapons shipments may lead to the further expansion of Iranian influence in the region. For persons opposed to the regime, this is sure to stand as another cause for fear about a nuclear agreement that is increasingly concrete, but the signing of which is still in doubt.