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Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN
A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN

Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube

A comprehensive nuclear accord may be in reach if both sides – Iran and the Security Council permanent members plus Germany – show determination to settle on a technical agreement and isolate the deal from its complex regional context.

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Executive Summary

In a region of troubles, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program stand out. The first-step agreement, signed in November 2013, broke a decade of futile diplomatic forays punctuated by mutual escalation. The product of a rare confluence of political calendars and actors, it set a framework for a balanced arms-control agreement that could form the basis of a comprehensive nuclear accord. But reasons for caution abound. It is easier to pause than to reverse the escalation pitting centrifuges against sanctions. Mistrust remains deep, time is short, and the process remains vulnerable to pressure from domestic and regional detractors. In bringing the sides together, the accord revealed the chasm that separates them. Success is possible only with political will to isolate the deal – at least for now – from its complex regional context. It will ultimately be sustainable only if the parties, building on its momentum, recognise that their rival’s legitimate interests need to be respected. But a far-reaching resolution of differences will be possible only after a relatively narrow, technical nuclear agreement.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: A Real Breakthrough

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez explains the recent progress in nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. CRISIS GROUP

The main objective of the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) is to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. In Geneva, where the agreement – officially known as the Joint Plan of Action – was signed, the group for the first time agreed to Iran maintaining some enrichment capacity. But it has demanded that Tehran significantly roll back its enrichment capabilities, close the bunkered enrichment facility in Fordow and heavy-water plant in Arak; and demonstrate the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by detailing past activities and allowing, for an extended period, intrusive monitoring. Fearing that it would be easier for Iran to reverse its nuclear concessions than for the West to renew its isolation, the group insists on retaining sanctions leverage, even through implementation of the final step of a comprehensive agreement.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: How Sanctions Work

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez explains the real power behind sanctions. Crisis Group

Iran believes that the P5+1’s objective is to contain not simply its nuclear program, but also the Islamic Republic itself. It contends that it has been singled out, uniquely among signatories of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to prove a negative, that its nuclear program does not aim at weaponisation. Tehran insists on preserving a substantial part of its nuclear infrastructure, in view of the enormous cost it has paid for it. While willing to accept heightened verification measures in order to enable the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to establish the peaceful nature of its program, it insists that they be temporary and respectful of its national security requirements. It also demands significant and immediate Western reciprocation of any nuclear concession.

From these starting points, it would appear that the P5+1’s maximum – in terms of both what it considers a tolerable residual Iranian nuclear capability and the sanctions relief it is willing to provide – falls short of Iran’s minimum. Nevertheless, it is still possible to reach a comprehensive agreement on a limited nuclear program – though an uncomfortable one for sceptics like Saudi Arabia and Israel that object on principle to Iran retaining any enrichment capacity. Negotiators will not get far, however, by trying to define Iran’s “practical needs” for enriched uranium (an approach endorsed in Geneva), since needs are a matter of interpretation about which Iran and the P5+1 differ. Focusing on “breakout time” – the time required to enrich enough uranium for one weapon – will not stand them in better stead, as it is based on theoretical, unpredictable and plastic calculations.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: The Way Forward

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez looks at the way forward in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. SHOW MORE CRISIS GROUP

What is needed, rather, is a compromise that satisfies both sides’ irreducible, bottom-line requirements: for Iran a meaningful enrichment program, continued scientific advancement and tangible sanctions relief; and for the P5+1, a firewall between Iran’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities, airtight monitoring mechanisms and sufficient time and Iranian cooperation to establish trust in the exclusively peaceful nature of the country’s nuclear program. Such a solution would enable them to sell the deal at home and serve as a springboard for developing a different kind of relationship.

This report presents a blueprint for achieving that agreement. It is guided by four objectives: building a firewall between Iran’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities by constraining the most proliferation-prone aspects of its nuclear program; enhancing transparency by establishing rigorous monitoring and verification mechanisms; ensuring implementation and deterring non-compliance by establishing objective and compulsory monitoring and arbitration mechanisms, as well as by devising, in advance, potential responses to breaches by either party; and bolstering the parties’ incentives to remain faithful to the agreement by introducing positive inducements rather than purely negative ones.

A comprehensive agreement based on these principles should be implemented in three phases, the first of which would start with steps that clearly demonstrate the parties’ commitment to the process and provide them with immediate tangible benefits, while delaying the heavy lifting until their investment in the process is greater, the costs for withdrawing higher and at least some sceptics have bought into the process.

The basic elements of the approach include:

  • permitting Iran a contingency enrichment program that could be dialled up in the event of nuclear fuel denial, though constrained enough that any breakout could be promptly detected and, through a defined response, thwarted;
     
  • converting the heavy-water research reactor in Arak to diminish the amount of plutonium it produces;
     
  • transforming the bunkered facility in Fordow into a proliferation-resistant research and development centre;
     
  • introducing transparency measures that exceed Iran’s existing obligations but conform with its legitimate security and dignity concerns and that the P5+1 should acknowledge will be temporary;
     
  • providing Iran significant but reversible sanctions relief in the early stages of the comprehensive agreement, followed by escalating further relaxation, including open-ended suspension or termination of restrictions in accordance with progress on the nuclear front;
     
  • establishing positive incentives by strengthening trade ties, and increasing civilian nuclear and renewable energy cooperation between the parties; and
     
  • coordinating messages to reassure both sides’ regional allies and rivals, and to avoid inciting hardliners as leaders sell the agreement at home.

The detailed recommendations that follow lay out this path in 40 actions. It is a path that carries risks for both sides. There is no guarantee that Iran will remain faithful to its commitments after international attention shifts. Nor is there certainty that the U.S. Congress will accept the deal and provide the president with the necessary authority on sanctions.

These risks notwithstanding, the alternatives are less attractive. A series of partial, interim deals would lessen the chances of reaching a final agreement, fall short of satisfying either party and strengthen hardline critics. A return to the status quo ante, with each side ratcheting up its leverage in the hope of forcing the other to capitulate, would very possibly lay the tracks for a scenario in which Iran attains a nuclear bomb while sanctions cause it grave harm. Most dangerous would be a military strike, which could set back Iran’s nuclear march temporarily, but at the cost of spurring it to rush toward the ultimate deterrent, while retaliating in a variety of asymmetric or non-conventional ways, with unpredictable but certainly tragic regional ramifications.

If odds of the talks collapsing are high, the stakes of failure are higher. At the very least, a breakdown would reduce the possibility of success later, as it would erode trust and stiffen positions. The region and the world will be a safer place for a compromise that protects everyone’s core interests, contains Iran’s nuclear program and rehabilitates the country’s economy and international standing.

Op-Ed / United States

A diplomatic breakdown over “snapback” tests the UN

Originally published in The Interpreter

After the United States experienced a rebuff at the United Nations last week – with almost the entire membership of the Security Council rejecting its attempt to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran – US officials warned that the dispute could lead to a major crisis in the Council, damaging the institution’s authority.

They are not alone in this analysis. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, a vocal critic of the US sanctions drive, has accused Washington of risking “a very serious scandal and rift” at the UN.

But these dire predictions may prove to be exaggerated.

The argument pivots on the US claim that, acting on the UN resolution that endorsed the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), it can demand the reactivation of UN sanctions resolutions on Iran that were terminated as part of the bargain. The negotiators of the deal agreed on a complex process to “snap back” these resolutions if Tehran broke its commitments and other dispute resolution mechanisms failed. (A recent International Crisis Group report looks at this process in detail.)

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US was triggering the snapback process on 20 August, most of other Council members responded dismissively, for the simple reason that the Trump administration quit the JCPOA unilaterally in 2018. While the US has made a legal case that it retains the standing to initiate snapback, even its European allies at the UN argue that it has forfeited its right to do so in practical terms. They suspect that the Trump administration’s real goal is to provoke Iran to renounce the JCPOA, and so kill the Obama-era deal.

While Pompeo was laying out the US case in New York, Britain, France and Germany – the European signatories of the JCPOA – released a statement rejecting the move. Overall, 13 of the 15 Council members have informed the Indonesian UN ambassador, the current president of the Council, that they did not believe the US had the standing to trigger snapback. The one member left in the US camp is the Dominican Republic.

What happens next? The Council has 30 days to debate the topic, but it is hard to see serious diplomacy taking place now. In theory, under the rules of the snapback process, if the Council does not agree to maintain the termination of the pre-2015 sanctions resolutions – which centre on military imports and exports, as well as individual travel restrictions and a total ban on uranium enrichment – they will come back into force on 20 September. While the US will claim that those conditions apply, and its allies in the Persian Gulf may support the notion, most of the wider UN membership will not.

This will lead to a surreal situation in which the US and other Council members talk past each other about what sanctions are in force. This scenario will create headaches for UN officials handling sanctions and the Middle East. But it is hard to say if it will cause a bigger crisis at the UN.

Some diplomats fret that the Trump administration, which has a track record of boycotting multilateral organisations that irritate it, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), could respond by trying to disrupt other Security Council business. Yet there are limits to how disruptive it can be before it starts harming US interests in other areas. It is hard to imagine, for example, the US breaking off talks with China and Russia over the sanctions regime on North Korea – on which the three powers grudgingly cooperate at the UN – out of spite over Iran.

The US could threaten to withhold funding to the UN secretariat’s political, peacekeeping and disarmament branches to demonstrate its dissatisfaction over Iran. The UN is already struggling financially, so such a move would make the long-suffering Secretary-General António Guterres’s life even more difficult. But it would also be a propaganda win for the Chinese and Russians, which will take every opportunity to use this crisis to argue the US cannot be trusted at the UN.

The snapback spat will doubtless hurt relations between the US and its European counterparts at the UN, but their cooperation has not been that great during the Trump presidency anyway. In July, the US blocked a German resolution calling for a new UN envoy to deal with climate change and security. This month, the Americans threatened to veto the continued deployment of peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, a French priority, on the grounds that the Blue Helmets are soft on Hezbollah. Even the UK, usually the closest US ally in New York, has been frustrated by Washington’s failure to invest in UN diplomacy over Libya and Yemen.

While European diplomats expect the snapback debate to be messy, and speculate that Washington could also use tariffs and other economic measures to put pressure on those who oppose its efforts, the US has alienated its partners to such an extent that they appear willing to endure some additional unpleasantness. They might be warier if opinion polls suggested that Trump was on track for victory in this year’s presidential elections. But the Europeans for now seem more inclined to believe in a Biden victory, and thus see the main challenge as holding off Trump’s attack on the JCPOA until next year, when it may be possible to rebuild diplomacy over Iran with a new administration. If Trump wins, the JCPOA is dead anyway.

Some argue that the snapback debate will undermine the Security Council in other ways. The spectacle of council members bickering over sanctions on Iran could inspire some states to question the validity of other sanctions regimes. African governments have, for example, criticised council measures against countries like South Sudan that do not enjoy regional support, and could use the uncertainties over Iran to re-litigate these issues. But as the snapback mechanism is unique, the dispute offers little real ammunition for such arguments.

More fundamentally, this debacle raises longer-term doubts about the Council’s value as a venue for endorsing compromises among the big powers in an increasingly fragmented international system. The Iran deal’s negotiators believed that by embedding the agreement in a UN resolution they could better guarantee its implementation. If the Council cannot resolve its differences over snapback one way or another, the Council’s status as guarantor of such complex agreements will suffer.

Nonetheless, it is probably wise to see the snapback dispute as just one of the recurrent diplomatic breakdowns that have punctuated UN diplomacy on issues from the Balkans to Iraq and Syria since the end of the Cold War. Each time Council members hit an impasse, commentators hurry to say that the UN has reached a decisive or disastrous turning point. Yet time after time, Council members – and above all the Permanent 5 – manage to patch over their differences after a cooling-off period.

The Security Council may suffer a split over snapback, but it is unlikely to be terminal.