The word out of Vienna is that an Iran nuclear deal will not be completed by a July 20 deadline.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Vienna on Tuesday that while marathon negotiations that started two weeks ago have made progress, “it is clear we still have more work to do.”
That the sides cannot quite close all the gaps is as much a function of politics as are technical concerns over aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. So much is riding on these negotiations that for either side to give in too quickly would likely be viewed negatively by key constituencies around the world and back home.
Iran has sunk more than $100 billion into its nuclear program in lost investment and oil revenues caused by economic sanctions. It has seen its main nuclear facility sabotaged by cyber war and lost five scientists to assassination.
A proud nation that currently chairs the non-aligned movement, Iran sees the negotiations as a way to assert its rights to a civilian nuclear program as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to also underline what it views as a double standard that rewards countries such as Israel and India that have developed nuclear weapons outside the NPT. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also worries that he and his regime will lose face if Iran looks overeager to reach a deal -- even if that deal were to profoundly serve the interests of the long-suffering Iranian people.
The United States and its allies have also paid a price for sanctions against Iran, yet the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have shown remarkable unity and tenacity in demanding that Iran place verifiable curbs on the program in return for sanctions relief. Even though only seven countries are taking part in the negotiations, the issue of nuclear proliferation is of global concern and a top foreign policy priority of President Barack Obama. Washington is under pressure from Israel, Arab states and the U.S. Congress to produce an agreement that is as tough as possible. The delay in the talks shows that the P5+1 are also fighting hard to get their way.
In near-constant consultations that have followed conclusion of an interim nuclear agreement last November, the negotiators have made considerable progress. They have reached understandings about modifying a reactor that could yield plutonium and removing large scale uranium enrichment from an underground facility that would be difficult to destroy in a military attack. Iran has accepted intrusive inspections and is discussing questions about possible past military nuclear research. The parties are stuck over the number and type of centrifuges Iran can maintain for enriching uranium to low levels and the duration of restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear activities – Iran appears to accept at most seven years; the P5+1 wants at least a decade.
Glimmers of compromise are visible. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the New York Times this week that Iran would be willing to essentially freeze its program at current levels, with about 10,000 centrifuges operating, and convert all enriched uranium into a powder form. He said Iran would guarantee for the duration of the agreement not to build a plant that could turn the powder back into gas, thus insuring it could not be enriched further to potential weapons grade.
The P5+1 are looking for a lower number of centrifuges – no more than 6,000 – or other steps that would make it technically impossible for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon without detection in under six months. One possible compromise would allow Iran to phase out its antiquated machines for a smaller number of more sophisticated centrifuges.
Fortunately, the interim agreement made provision for a possible six-month extension of negotiations. Zarif alluded to this when he told reporters in Vienna at a news conference called to follow and complement Kerry’s: “Enough progress has been made in the talks to continue diplomacy after July 20. The final deadline for the talks is November 25.”
Extending the interim accord is not automatic, however. If the negotiators feel they are close and need only a few weeks more, they might just continue the current terms. If they seek a longer extension, however, Iran will surely want to repatriate more of its oil revenues – currently bottled up in foreign banks – in exchange for continuing to restrict uranium enrichment.
As time goes on, political dangers of an extension multiply. Members of the U.S. Congress who appear to oppose a deal with Iran are already threatening to try to pass new sanctions and sending letters to Obama that try to define an agreement in terms the Iranians will not accept.
Bureaucratically, negotiations may also become more difficult after October, when Catherine Ashton – the long-time European Union foreign affairs chief who has shepherded these talks for five years – steps down, along with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, a top official dealing with Iran over two U.S. administrations. Meanwhile, mid-term Congressional elections in November could flip the U.S. Senate over to Republican control and further constrict Obama’s already minimalist legislative agenda.
Skeptics about an Iran accord need to recognize that, ultimately, nothing can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons if its leadership chooses to do so. The best insurance that Iran won’t do this is to bind it back into the international community through trade, investment and people-to-people ties. Failure to reach a nuclear agreement means a likely end to P5+1 unity over sanctions – especially if the U.S. is seen as the more intransigent party. In Iranian domestic politics, failure would push the pendulum away from President Hassan Rouhani back toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-era hardliners, with dire consequences for the reform movement.
With everything else that is going wrong in the region – Syria collapsing, Libya in flames, Israel and Gaza rocketing each other again and barbarians at the gates of Baghdad – surely it is in everyone’s interests to resolve the long-standing impasse with Iran. If they don’t achieve success by Sunday, negotiators will have earned the right to a brief vacation--but they should get back on the job as soon as possible.