WASHINGTON - U.S. and Iranian negotiators are working to transform a recent interim deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions into a final agreement. But analysts say there are obstacles to a final accord.
The framework agreement reached after more than 18 months of negotiating puts limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for easing economic and financial sanctions against Tehran.
U.S. officials said the deal “cuts off every pathway” for Iran developing a nuclear weapon and puts in place strict inspection procedures. President Barack Obama described the accord as “a historic understanding” with Tehran.
While expressing expressed support for the negotiations, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed Tehran’s view that economic sanctions must be lifted as soon as a final deal is struck. The U.S. favors a more gradual approach.
Negotiators hope to reach a legally-binding, comprehensive accord by June 30 - a self-imposed deadline.
Tough talks ahead
Jim Walsh, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the negotiators are faced with key questions.
“How big of an enrichment program will Iran be allowed to have? How long will different parts of the agreement be in force? The nature of sanctions relief - both U.S. sanctions relief, but also it seems increasingly important to Iranians, sanctions relief from the United Nations and the Security Council resolutions,” said Walsh.
“So there has been a lot to negotiate, they’ve made a lot of progress on a lot of issues. But as both sides have said repeatedly during these long negotiations, nothing is settled until everything is settled,” he said.
Walsh said sanctions against Iran have hurt the country’s economy, but they haven’t prevented Tehran from building 19,000 centrifuges, machines used to enrich uranium that could be used in a nuclear bomb. Walsh said sanctions don’t necessarily achieve policy objectives.
“They don’t guarantee that we will get an agreement, but they created an opportunity for both sides to talk. But I think people in America sometimes had the misguided notion that sanctions alone can accomplish everything,” said Walsh, “and seem to forget that [Iran's] President [Hassan] Rouhani won with 51 percent of the vote - 49 percent of the Iranian electorate voted for hardliners who did not favor negotiations. So had any of those other people won, sanctions or no sanctions, we wouldn’t have negotiations right now.”
In addition to sanctions, some have been advocating a more drastic approach to stopping Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons: a military strike either by the United States, Israel - or both.
One of those favoring such action is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.
“It has been the case twice before that Israel has struck nuclear weapons programs in hostile states - once in Iraq in 1981, once in Syria in 2007. And they were able to set those programs back very substantially or end them entirely. And I think that result would obtain here as well,” said Bolton.
Paul Rogers, military expert at Bradford University in England, said the Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981 had unforeseen consequences.
“It has now become apparent that in fact that particular reactor was not in any way suited to the production of nuclear weapons. And it even seems to be that once it had been attacked, that was when the Saddam Hussein regime decided to try and develop nuclear weapons," said Rogers.
"So while there is a claim that the attack on the Osirak reactor was successful, other evidence suggests that it actually stimulated Iraq to go down the nuclear weapons route,” said Rogers.
For many years, said Jim Walsh, Israel has threatened military action against Iran.
“Certainly under current circumstances, it’s hard for me to imagine that President Obama would initiate a military campaign against Iran as we are in the middle of dealing with Iraq which is teetering and Afghanistan and now Yemen,” said Walsh.
Walsh and others say there is a war weariness in the United States and no appetite for another conflict in the Middle East.