Iran Nuclear Extension: Key to Deal or an Empty Room?
In case you missed the Ground Truth Briefing on the recent Iranian nuclear talks, please see this summary of the conversation with experts Robert Litwak, Ali Vaez and Robin Wright.
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- While negotiators failed to reach a deal by the original November 24 deadline, this was not due to a lack of will. Both Iran and all the members of the P5+1 have made an earnest effort to advance negotiations and avoid being distracted by global politics. As Ms.Wright pointed out, there is a precedent for negotiations of this magnitude to take at least a year.
- Both parties began negotiations with a maximalist position. However, the true redlines have now been established. The U.S. and other members of the P5+1 are seeking to limit Iran’s breakout capacity to a year’s time. Iran on the other hand is determined to have the sanctions imposed on its oil and banking sectors to be removed relatively quickly.
- In both the U.S. and Iran local events have the potential to reshape negotiations. In Iran parliamentary elections are approaching, and the nuclear issue is becoming even more politicized. In addition, the sudden drop in oil prices will hurt the country’s economy and put further pressure on President Rouhani. In the U.S., a renewed push by Republican lawmakers to add additional sanctions on Iran has the potential to scuttle talks.
In little more than a year’s time the relationship between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran has improved dramatically. In a sharp break from his predecessor, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with President Obama and other Western leaders to settle some of the country’s longstanding issues, of which none is more important than reaching a compromise on Iran’s contentious nuclear program. However, despite this new and seemingly earnest effort to cooperate, negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 have been unable to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Now that the original deadline of November 24 has passed, and although talks were extended for another seven months, leaders and lawmakers around the world are increasingly questioning whether a deal can be reached.
In Mr. Einhorn’s opinion there is still “about a 50-50 chance” that negotiators will reach an agreement by the new June 30 deadline. However, for a deal a deal to be reached Iran’s Supreme Leader must show a greater willingness to compromise. As he noted, in the most recent talks, “Iranian negotiators didn’t have the flexibility to make a compromise.” Instead, negotiators have been forced to comply with the Supreme Leader’s demand that the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program be short-term and that the country’s compliance be rewarded with immediate lifting of sanctions. This is, in Mr. Einhorn’s opinion an “essentially impossible” demand.
Dr. Litwak largely agreed with this assessment, stating that Iran “over played its hand…has been intransigent on the size of its uranium enrichment,” and rejected what was an “overly generous” deal from the P5+1. In his opinion, the failure to reach an agreement was not the product of negotiations but instead signaled a more fundamental, debate currently being carried out in Iran: “whether Iran is a revolutionary state or an ordinary country.”At present, the Supreme Leader is making the decision whether the economic benefits of reaching a nuclear agreement are worth the cultural costs of reopening Iran to the rest of the world and rejoining the international system.
This depiction of negotiations, however, was refuted by Dr. Vaez, who instead argued that “both sides, not just Iran, were responsible” for creating deadlock and keeping a final agreement off the table. In his opinion, “both sides started with maximalist positions,” and thus spent much of the initial negotiating time working to identify both party’s “real redlines.” Now, the goals are clear: the P5+1 seeks to limit Iran’s breakout capacity to one year and ease sanctions gradually over time, and. Iran wants the P5+1 to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium and to lift sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors quickly. The problem as Dr. Vaez sees it, is that these objectives do not overlap and will require even greater flexibility from negotiators from both parties.
Despite these challenges, Ms. Wright is hopeful that negotiators will be able to continue working side-by-side in order to reach a comprehensive agreement. She is however, also worried that the diplomatic effort will be “overtaken by events on the ground.” In particular she is concerned that the sudden drop in global oil prices will further open President Rouhani to criticism from Iran’s hardliners. In the U.S. however, there are also challenges, as there is a new effort to introduce new sanctions against Iran in the new, republican controlled Congress.
Although these negotiations have marked an unprecedented and earnest attempt by President Rouhani to establish new global ties, significant challenges still remain. While progress has undoubtedly been made, it remains to be seen whether negotiations can succeed.
Robert S. Litwak
Author and columnist for The New Yorker
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more