Framework Deal Announced but Coverage, Reactions Vary

According to EU foreign policy chief Federica Moghereini, the process is set to complete the detailed agreement by the June 30 final deadline, and it will reflect such recently agreed upon points as limitations on Iran’s uranium stockpiles and enrichment capabilities “for a specific period” and the isolation of all of Iran’s enrichment activities in the facility at Natanz.

This latter point initially seems at odds with a comment by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, also quoted by CNN, saying of the framework agreement, “None of those measures include closing any of our facilities. The proud people of Iran would never accept that.”

This was explained by a separate CNN report, which listed six major elements of the framework deal. Under it, Iran will be permitted to retain exactly 6,104 enrichment centrifuges, out of its current 19,000, of which about 10,000 have been operational. This is in line with approximate figures that had been floated by officials and analysts in recent weeks. It also reflects a marked increase from the roughly 1,500 centrifuges that Western diplomats had established as their initial negotiating position.

But a second point in the framework will be sure to be regarded by some critics of the talks as an even greater concession to Iran, namely the provision allowing it to keep 1,000 centrifuges at the Fordo site, which Western negotiators had formerly demanded be emptied of enrichment capabilities because its location inside of a mountain makes it nearly impervious to attack from the air.

Despite Fordo’s retention of centrifuges, and thus technical enrichment capability, Moghereini and other Western diplomats have been able to sell the framework agreement as isolating Iranian enrichment work because the same agreement specifies that these centrifuges are to be used only for medical isotopes and scientific research, not for uranium enrichment.

Thus, the effectiveness of a final agreement based on this framework will likely depend to a very large extent on the ability of verification procedures to prove that Iran is not conducting illicit activities at Fordo. The same can be said of three other framework points specified by CNN. Extensive verification will be necessary to confirm that Iran’s uranium enrichment is not exceeding 3.67 percent, that it’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon remains over one year for the ten years that the agreement will be in full effect, and that allowable research and development remains within this limit.

Verification procedures will also be essential to the sixth announced point: the ability of economic sanctions to snap back into place if Iran is found to be out of compliance with its obligations under the deal. However, if the EU determines Iran to be in compliance early in the life of the deal, all US and EU sanctions will reportedly be lifted at once.

At least until the deal is finalized, this seems to give both sides room to claim victory – Iran because the wholesale lifting of sanctions was a firm demand that it had introduced quite recently, and the Obama administration because the snap-back arrangement suggests that Iran will quickly face consequences if it cheats on a deal.

Indeed, in his comments on the framework agreement President Obama insisted, “If Iran cheats, the world will know it.” But this is something that the president will have to prove to adversaries in his own government and to traditional US allies who have broken with the administration over this issue, chief among them the Israeli government.

The National Journal reported that Obama was scheduled to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about this issue late on Thursday. But Netanyahu’s long insistence that the US was hurtling toward a bad deal is sure to make this a hard sell. The same is true of Republicans in the US Congress, but they will need Democratic allies to seriously stand up to President Obama if they are unsatisfied with the agreement.

The Republicans alone can pass the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015, which would require congressional oversight and verification of any deal. But Democratic votes will be required to override a promised presidential veto. If not for this, the Republican Party likely would have taken action against Obama’s Iran nuclear strategy long ago.

As it is, Democrats are similarly skeptical of the deal, but previously indicated that they were willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt as his negotiators finished the current round of talks. The National Journal suggests that Obama’s presentation of the framework agreement has tentatively secured Democrats’ willingness to further extend their trust, as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid reported that he was cautiously optimistic about the progress that has been made.

Breitbart adds that even some Republicans are evidently willing to wait before decrying the agreement that has just been reached, although this has not impeded their efforts to guarantee Congressional oversight. “It is important that we wait to see the specific details of today’s announcement,” said Senator Bob Corker, one of the sponsors of the INARA.

But he added, “We must remain clear-eyed regarding Iran’s continued resistance to concessions, long history of covert nuclear weapons-related activities, support of terrorism, and its current role in destabilizing the region.” With this in mind, the Senate still intends to vote on INARA as soon as April 14, after the end of the current congressional recess. And Corker expects it to pass with a strongly bipartisan vote.

It is entirely possible that opposition to the emerging deal will grow on both sides of the aisle as more information emerges about it. In its real-time updates about the announcement of the agreement, Hot Air pointed out that there had apparently been some dispute about how much of the framework agreement to reveal. This could point toward either a desire to hide undesirable aspects or an interest in leaving open to possibility of changing provisions later on.

Indeed, Hot Air expresses suspicion about the extent of the existing agreement and the accuracy of the Obama administration’s narrative about it. It asserts that Iran’s celebratory announcement of the agreement suggests that it has won the competition to make the agreement “broad to the point of meaninglessness.”

Each party to the talks seems to have attached its own narrative and language to the supposed breakthrough. Agence France-Presse reports Moghereini as referring to “good news,” while the German foreign ministry declared that an “understanding had just been reached on key points.” The US was slow to make explicit statements, with Secretary of State John Kerry initially saying simply that it had been a “big day” for the negotiations.

On their surface, these remarks seem vaguer and less committal than the Iranian foreign minister’s declaration that all parties had “found solutions” to the outstanding issues. Interestingly, the Iranian delegation had always rejected the idea of formulating a framework agreement separate from the final one, implying that the Iranian sense of a solution would be the continuation of talks without a binding agreement at this stage.

Hot Air speculates that for the Obama administration, “agreeing to a vague statement of understanding ensures that the talks will continue for three more months and spares [the president] the drip-drip-drip humiliation of having Kerry stuck in Switzerland day after day, refusing to walk away no matter how obstinate Iran’s being.”

The same article concludes that as of Thursday the announced agreement only specifies that just over 6,000 centrifuges will be allowed, that those operating at Fordo cannot enrich uranium, and that sanctions will be lifted soon if Iran is found to be in compliance.

Each of these points reiterates something that was already generally understood to be part of the emerging agreement, while the mention of centrifuges at Fordo constitutes a new concession to Iranian demands. The existing announcement fails to settle other outstanding points, including whether and when Iran will be required to come clean about past military dimensions of its nuclear work. It also leaves open the question of whether Iran will accept snap inspections of all sites suspected of being linked to those military dimensions – an essential feature of any verification scheme especially in light of the new permissions granted at Fordo.

This point was driven home in an article published Thursday by Politico, which looks at the verification methods employed by the world community in its dealings with the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. These failed, the article claims, in large part because business interests prompted foreign entities, chiefly the Russian government, to help Iraq to avoid full scrutiny by the UN Security Council.

The author, former CIA special advisor Charles Duelfer notes that any verification scheme under the current agreement would likely rely on Russian President Vladimir Putin, formerly a major beneficiary of Iraq’s cheating, and currently a increasingly close ally of Iran. Iraq was coached on dealing with the Security Council and warned about possible snap inspections, the article states, and Iran might be as well, for similar reasons.

Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov, who served as Russian ambassador to the UN in the midst of the Iraq verification conflict, is now serving as the head of the Russian delegation in the P5+1 talks, where he has earned a reputation as Iran’s primary foreign advocate, and where he announced the conclusion of a framework a full day before the other parties.