A 15-minute phone call made just under a year ago may be what historians say set the stage for a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran – if one is achieved by a November 24 deadline.
The call between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani marked the first direct contact between the United States and Iran since 1979.
The subject was Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, and it opened up the door to renewed talks between Iran and the so-called P5 + 1 countries — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France, all members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.
The resumption of talks last October led to an interim deal reached in January. The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) froze Iran's enrichment, in return granting Tehran some relief from Western-imposed economic sanctions.
The entire process is delicate as illustrated by the latest round of U.S. sanctions and Tehran's sharp response. The penalties — which, according to media reports, are not new but meant to enforce existing sanctions —target businesses and inviduals the Obama administration says are involved in expanding in Iran's nuclear program. Rouhani described them as a "crime against humanity," reflecting a comparatively tougher stance towards the United States.
Still, the negotiations have raised the possibility of a historic agreement with Iran. Observers say that would provide a legacy moment for the president, whose approval ratings on foreign policy are dismally low.
From ‘rogue states’ to ‘outliers’
While the opening with Iran didn’t come until Obama’s second term in office, a shift in strategy toward Tehran began shortly after he was sworn in, said Robert Litwak, author of "Iran's Nuclear Chess: Calculating America's Moves.”
The president’s first administration “jettisoned the term 'rogue state,'” instead referring to countries such as Iran and North Korea as “outliers,” said Litwak, who directs security studies at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "And that really was the heart of the reset: reframing the challenge posed, in this case, particularly by Iran, not in terms of some unilateral American concept of rogue state, but rather in terms of conduct that violates established international norms."
The Obama reset was informed in part by a serious misstep by former President George W. Bush, said Peter Galbraith, a former ambassador to Croatia who also held several senior positions at the United Nations.
"Let's be clear with what happened with the Bush administration in Iran," said Galbraith, a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. "In April of 2003, the Iranians made an offer to give up on their nuclear program in its entirety. And the Bush administration's response was 'we don't negotiate with evil.' "
Galbraith said that refusal gave the Iranian government eight years to perfect its uranium enrichment, allowing it to make what he described as "great strides" toward nuclear weapons capability.
But by the time the president began his first term, the option of diplomacy was already on the table, said Robert Einhorn, who participated in the P5 + 1 talks and served as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control.
"The Bush administration approach had evolved considerably," with representatives "prepared to take part in discussions with the Iranians in the P5 + 1 process," said Einhorn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
A key part of the shift was allowing Iran to enrich uranium, a decision that critics say is a grave mistake.
"Obama was prepared to participate in the P5 + 1 talks without making enrichment an issue,” Einhorn said. “He was willing to approach diplomacy in a more creative way.”
With Rouhani’s June 2013 election, Obama could reach out to a decidedly less hostile and more moderate leader than former Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran is a signatory of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As such, it argues it retains the right to enrich low-level uranium for nuclear power plants.
But the United States and a long list of other countries suspect Tehran’s civil nuclear program is a cover for its real endgame: to acquire the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Iran’s leaders have repeatedly denied the charge.
"The Iranians have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle," putting the United States in a negotiating bind, Litwak said. "Those centrifuges that spin to create low-enriched uranium for reactors can keep spinning to generate highly rich uranium that could be used in a weapon."
So the focus for the Obama administration has been on bounding, or limiting, Iran’s nuclear program and allowing some enrichment.
That negotiating position has critics – including Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state.
During an interview with The Atlantic, widely scrutinized after publication, Clinton made it clear she supported a far harder line with Iranians in the current negotiations.
"I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment," she was quoted as saying. "Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right."
Clinton went on to tell The Atlantic that no enrichment is "not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that [the P5 + 1 negotiators] stake out that position."
Others, like Galbraith, argue that approach is a nonstarter. "Of course, there should be no enrichment," he said. "But the question is, how do you get there?"
Galbraith points out that though sanctions have imposed real economic hardships on Iranians, they haven’t led Iran’s government or its ultimate power holder, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to abandon enrichment.
A military option is not realistic, in Galbraith’s view.
"If you produce a deal that allows for some enrichment, that also allows for clear inspection to demonstrate that Iran is not breaking out and going ahead and making a nuclear weapon, I think that is a significant achievement," he said. "Is it perfect? Absolutely not."
There remains a major roadblock that could easily derail reaching an agreement by the November deadline, which was extended from July.
The Obama administration is acutely aware that Iran may try to stall for time to build a bomb while appearing to scale back its enrichment capacity, according to Einhorn.
He and other non-proliferation experts say the amount of time Iran would need to "break out" a nuclear weapon – that is, to switch gears from energy production – is a crucial concern.
"Iran says it wants a fairly large enrichment capacity to supply its Russian-built reactor at Bushehr" nuclear power plant by 2021, Einhorn said. "The United States worries that that level of capacity would give Iran a rapid breakout."
So, negotiators are making the case that Iran's enrichment capacity must be limited for a long time.
The ideal would be making sure the window for a possible breakout for Iran doesn’t exist, Litwak said. Or, failing that, making sure there is enough time to do something about it.
"You want to have confidence that the amount of time Iran would need to generate highly enriched uranium for a bomb would [also] … provide ample time for the U.S. to generate a collective response," he said. "The rule of thumb is that we need at least one year."
The very tough and challenging details aside, experts say the talks reveal an existential struggle inside Iran – a kind of identity crisis.
"The real question is whether Iran wants to be counted as a non-nuclear power," said Daniel Serwer, a senior professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"Why would it want to do that? Well, because a nuclear Iran is a very dangerous place where there is a lot risk to Iranians. A non-nuclear Iran is a much safer place for Iran," Serwer said. "… But ultimately, that [comes] down to what the Iranians think."
From Litwak's point of view, the talks represent a proxy for Iran’s continued and, up to now, unresolved debate over whether it wants to be a revolutionary state or merely an ordinary country.
"It is an identity crisis and it's not one that they have been able to resolve now 35 years after the revolution," Litwak said.
Furthermore, Litwak points out, it’s unclear whether supreme leader Khamenei – pressured by sanctions on Iranian society and the resulting economic dislocations – will agree to nuclear limitations that ensure it’s "not a military program masquerading as a civil program."
Most policy experts said the odds for reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran are 50-50. Einhorn, who recently wrote an open letter to Iranian negotiators, said the fast-approaching deadline simply does not allow enough time to sort out all the remaining disputes.
"I think a deal is going to be hard to reach because the gaps are so large," he said. "It will be an uphill effort."