Negotiations began last January following the signing of an interim agreement in November. That interim agreement was renewed for four months and will now be renewed for an additional seven. As well as prolonging the negotiations, this extends the sanctions relief that brings Iran about 700 million dollars’ worth of revenue that would otherwise be frozen each month.
Representatives of the White House have indicated that the latest arrangement calls for a mutual decision by March 1st as to what issues need to be resolved, then a final agreement by July.
Reuters’ report on the extension notes a difference in tone between the Iranian and Western sides. Despite praising the talks and asserting that a deal could still be reached, US Secretary of State John Kerry also acknowledged that significant gaps remain between the contrasting positions and that the process “won’t get easier” in the coming months.
Meanwhile, an unnamed Western diplomat spoke much more frankly about the situation, saying that the Iranian negotiators are still refusing to budge on key positions, in line with the strict restrictions that have been placed on any possible agreement by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Realistically, these restrictions indicate that no deal can be reached without the US and its allies abandoning their most essential demands for assuring that Iran does not develop the capability to construct a nuclear bomb. However, some supporters of the talks have floated the idea that Iran may quickly compromise on its current red lines when a deal appears to be in reach.
Business Insider reports that Kerry has nonetheless insisted that the negotiations are working and that the extension is thus justified. He asked for patience from the administration’s opponents in Washington and said of the talks, “I believe the United States and our partners have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point.” But with so little demonstrable progress, it is fairly certain that Republican legislators will disagree.
Rouhani Declares Victory, Possibly Highlighting Secrecy
Reuters states that the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been more notably more positive about Monday’s extension of the nuclear talks, and the Associated Press indicates that Rouhani declared that in forcing that extension Iran “has achieved a significant victory.”
At a minimum, this means that Rouhani sees victory in simply keeping alive the hope for permanent sanctions relief upon the conclusion of a deal. But more than that, statements such as this may acknowledge an Iranian strategy of drawing out the talks in order to continue receiving limited sanctions relief without having to make any serious cuts to its nuclear program.
Historically, this would be in keeping with Rouhani’s sense of victory in the nuclear domain. When he was serving as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, he boasted of the nation’s achievement in deceiving the West in order to stall for time while secretly maintaining full capacity for its nuclear research and uranium enrichment.
The possibility of such secret work remains a concern for the West, especially in light of repeated statements by the International Atomic Energy Agency indicating that Iran has not been fully cooperating with the probe into suspected military dimensions of the nation’s nuclear program.
On public radio’s Here & Now, security expert Jim Walsh emphasized the parallel issues of “break out” and “sneak out,” which are both of concern to those who are worried about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. To date, much of the public discussion of the negotiations has focused on break out; that is, limiting the acknowledged components of the Iranian nuclear program in order to prevent it from being able to break its latest agreements and rush for a nuclear weapon.
Even these acknowledged aspects have not been subjects of agreement between the two sides. The Associated Press summarizes the current status of the key issues at the nuclear talks and indicates that Iran still refuses to halt uranium enrichment at the heavily fortified Arak site and will not convert the Fordo heavy water plant into a light water plant that is only capable of produced much less plutonium.
Additionally, Iran has only signaled willingness to bring down its number of operational enrichment centrifuges from 9,000 to 7,000, and even this would only be short term as Ayatollah Khamenei has made clear that the regime intends to dramatically increase its enrichment capacity in the coming years. The US has conversely lowered its demands and would let Iran retain 4,000 centrifuges instead of just 2,000.
Potentially casting further doubt on Iran’s long-term commitment to any deal with the West, Iranian negotiators are continuing to demand that that deal remain in effect for less than half of the 20 years expected by the West. At the same time, Iran expects immediate, across-the-board sanctions relief upon signing the deal, whereas the West naturally expects those sanctions to be removed piecemeal as Iran demonstrates compliance.
But such demonstrations of compliance may yet remain questionable if there is a possibility of Iran “sneaking out” to a nuclear weapon through secret activities. Preventing this would require Iran’s acceptance of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allowing unlimited IAEA inspections without advance notice.
Such “intrusive inspections” are what former CIA director Michael Hayden called for in a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and Africa on November 20. Hayden shared the opinion that Iran is already too close to a nuclear weapon and is almost certainly trying to retain the option to develop one. He also declared that the intelligence community simply does not have enough current intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program, and needs considerably more transparency.
Hayden’s conclusions seem to echo a report issued last week by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has been responsible for its own intelligence gathering within Iran in recent years. The resistance group highlighted several unanswered questions about the Iranian nuclear program in its report, pointing to the conclusion that the regime is still being deliberately secretive and is pursuing military objectives through the program.
New Sanctions Likely
The USA Today looks at the benefits that both sides of the nuclear negotiations can expect from the latest extension. But it also acknowledges that the extension carries risks for the US. In fact, while the outlined benefits are at least partially tangible for Iran, they are entirely aspirational for the US.
Iran will continue to receive unfrozen assets under the now one year old interim agreement. It will also use the extension as an opportunity to continue to erode international support for sanctions by encouraging investment by European businesses. This encouragement is leading some of those businesses to eagerly anticipate a positive end to the negotiations.
Meanwhile, Iran’s own private sector is similarly anticipating a deal, according to Al Monitor. Economic indicators from within the country apparently signal that business leaders share the Iranian president’s optimism about the prospects for a deal. At the same time, Al Monitor suggests that that deal might empower the private sector and allow it to compete with government-controlled industries that are better able to adapt to a situation of sanctions.
But such outcomes do not necessarily signify positive changes for the United States, and an Iran with less domestic economic power may only seek to assert its power elsewhere. The USA Today’s account of American benefits of the extension merely says that officials hope that Iran will soon help the West in its conflict against ISIS and that it will voluntarily suspend its military-oriented nuclear activities.
But thus far Iran has shown no willingness to accept the American role in the Middle East and has sought to use the situation to extend its own influence in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The USA Today notes that some analysts believe that the Obama administration must choose between either giving in to Iran’s regional power or confronting it militarily. Others, however, see viable options that stop short of military action.
The common wisdom in American policy circles is that economic sanctions are effective at constraining the Iranian government and that it was those sanctions that forced Iran to come to the negotiating table last year. Now that Iran has shown little willingness to work with the US during the negotiating process, and now that the Republican Party is poised to take control of both houses of Congress, new sanctions may be in the offing for early in the coming year, according to Roll Call.
Reuters reports that the White House has responded to stated Republican objectives by saying that new sanctions would be counterproductive. But Republicans and some Democrats have insisted that a more sensible Iran policy involves maintaining pressure on the regime, and they have pushed for legislation that would initiate new sanctions immediately if Iran walked away from a nuclear deal.
Security expert Jim Walsh told Here & Now that he agrees that new sanctions are a likely consequence of the imminent transfer of legislative power in Washington.
One of the most vocal advocates for new sanctions and a more confrontational Iran policy in Washington is Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Saint Peters Blog points out that Rubio was upset by the news of the extension of nuclear negotiations and criticized policies that have enriched the clerical regime in exchange for nothing of substance.
Rubio’s push for more sanctions is not only part of a strategy for preventing the emergence of a nuclear Iran but also, as Saint Peters Blog puts it, is part of an effort to “increase pressure on Iran on all fronts – nuclear, terrorism and human rights.”