U.S. and Iranian negotiators have launched a final round of talks on Iran's nuclear program as the March 31 deadline to reach a preliminary agreement rapidly approaches.
Both the United States and Iran say tough decisions still need to be made in nuclear talks aimed at reaching a framework deal by this Tuesday's deadline.
Secretary of State John Kerry met Friday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the two diplomats also held talks on Thursday. Both sides have expressed optimism a deal can be reached.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's Tweeted a comment regarding the talks.
Negotiations for the political framework that would lay the foundations for a longer-term deal have been long and complex, and one crucial aspect of the talks center on the question of easing sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.
Senior diplomats of the other so-called P5+1 nations participating in the talks are expected to soon join their Iranian and U.S. counterparts.
Analysts in Washington say the deal could finally begin to untangle the complex web of sanctions, which have several layers, that have economically isolated Tehran from the rest of the world.
There are U.N. sanctions that target Iranian companies, individuals and entities believed responsible for proliferation, or implicated in the acquisition of technology for nuclear or ballistic missile programs. There are also European Union sanctions that include an embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil and petrochemicals and all services related to the transport and delivery of this merchandise, as well as banking and financial restrictions.
Finally, U.S. sanctions target those overseas who do business with Iran, shutting off oil sales to Asia and Iran’s access to the global financial system.
If Tehran agrees to a political deal whereby it stops sensitive nuclear work for at least 10 years, and opens itself up to inspection and verification, international sanctions related to its nuclear program would be lifted.
Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies cautioned that removing the restrictions will leave the international community with little future leverage if Tehran does not stick to the terms of the deal. He recommended a gradual, phased-in approach contingent on Iranian compliance.
“One has to take into account the possibility that Iran may cheat the agreement," Ottolenghi said. "You have to take into account the possibility that you may need instruments for punishment, for retribution, if violations occur, if there is a lack of compliance.”
Challenge to get sanctions re-imposed
Ottolenghi added that once sanctions are lifted, it will be a challenge to get them re-imposed. Even scaling them back will mean that whatever restrictions remain in place will be applied in a very lax fashion, he says.
It is not yet clear what kind of sanctions relief is being discussed between Iran and the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, the so-called P5+1.
Easing the restrictions will have a considerable economic impact. According to Ottolenghi, in the last year before sanctions began, in 2006-2007, EU-Iran trade amounted to roughly $25 billion, half of which was Iranian sales of oil and petrochemicals to Europe. By 2013, the final year before Iran started benefiting from some sanctions relief, that trade had shrunk by over 40 percent.
Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, believes once a deal is struck it will be relatively simple for the European Union to lift its sanctions. The U.N. also could decide to temporarily lift its sanctions. And in Washington, President Barack Obama could lift those sanctions imposed by executive actions, and then every 180 days, waive congressionally-imposed nuclear-related sanctions.
“Iranians will come out on the street and celebrate if there is a deal," she said. And even though Iran has a political system with very limited democratic participation, Slavin said "the leadership is aware of the sentiments of the people and I think that they would risk tremendous opposition if they were to sign a deal and then risk having sanctions re-imposed if they were to violate it.”
Divide between Obama, Republicans
There is, however, deep dissent between President Obama and Republican lawmakers over what constitutes a good deal and some members of Congress may insist on keeping or even intensifying sanctions in order to maintain some sort of leverage over Tehran.
"It depends what's written in the deal," explained Ottolenghi. "If the deal creates conditions whereby Iran is unable to build a nuclear weapon, now or in ten years’ time, or in twenty years’ time when the deal expires, and the verification mechanisms built into the deal are such that the room for cheating and circumventing the deal will be extremely limited and restricted and the verification regime will be very intrusive, then that’s what everybody wanted."
If however, Iran is left with an industrial-sized nuclear infrastructure that could enable them to build a nuclear bomb when the deal expires, and there are not sufficient verification mechanisms to catch Iran on time before it cheats, then Ottolenghi said, "this does not solve anything, and it actually leaves us in a worse situation."
Slavin acknowledged the deal involves a level of risk, but questioned how long such draconian sanctions could last anyway.
“So even if there are some within the U.S. Congress who would like to maintain these sanctions indefinitely and would even like to intensify them, they are only effective if most of the rest of the world agrees," she said. "So this is kind of the peak moment for the U.S. and its allies to exert pressure on Iran; it’s the peak moment to get a deal.”
The Iranians also are worried about what happens when President Obama's tenure ends in 2017, said Slavin. But she says once a deal is struck and sanctions are lifted, if the Iranians implement their part of the deal, it will be hard to turn the clock back.
"Even if a Republican comes in 2017, I think it would be difficult to go back on an agreement that’s been signed onto by not just the United States but the other permanent members of the UN security council, by the European Union," she said. "So the Iranians should have reasonable confidence that it would be fulfilled.”
A separate raft of restrictions imposed on Iran for its alleged support of terrorist activities, money laundering, human rights violations and abuses, are not likely to be lifted.