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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
The Coronavirus Crisis is a Diplomatic Opportunity for the United States and Iran
The Coronavirus Crisis is a Diplomatic Opportunity for the United States and Iran

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.

The Coronavirus Crisis is a Diplomatic Opportunity for the United States and Iran

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington and Tehran could use the public health emergency to show goodwill, dial down tensions while saving face, and avoid a dangerous confrontation.

If Iran’s leaders thought things couldn’t get worse, they were wrong. The country faces three simultaneous crises: a public health emergency that is worsening by the hour, tensions with the United States that have once again grown in the past few days, and an economic picture that could go from troubled to dire in a matter of months.

The confluence of a coronavirus pandemic, security threats, and financial troubles has deepened the political system’s legitimacy crisis in the wake of last month’s parliamentary elections that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Washington might view this as a validation of its so-called maximum pressure strategy against Tehran, but if it fails to capitalize on this moment to de-escalate tensions and lay the groundwork for a mutually beneficial diplomatic settlement, the leadership in Tehran is likely to become more aggressive in the region, increasing the risk of a conflict that neither side appears to want.

Since the dramatic escalations of late 2019 and early 2020, which culminated in the killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Suleimani and Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces, both Iran and the United States appeared content to return to their respective corners.

But there has been a steady stream of incidents in Iraq, with at least seven attacks near U.S. diplomatic facilities inside Baghdad’s Green Zone and U.S. military installations in Iraq throughout January and February. These attacks spiked on March 11 following a barrage of rockets that killed three members of the U.S.-led coalition, including two Americans, and injured more than a dozen others at an Iraqi army base, Camp Taji, north of Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper subsequently assessed that “Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups” were responsible. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned ­that “those responsible must be held accountable.” A day later, the United States retaliated against an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia in Iraq, which in turn fired more rockets into Camp Taji on March 14 and again on March 17.

The impact of the rapidly spreading disease and collapse in oil prices will likely present almost unprecedented challenges to an economy that is already beset by government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions.

This latest moment of peril is playing out against the backdrop of a dramatic COVID-19 outbreak in Iran, which has the third-highest number of confirmed cases and fatalities anywhere in the world. The Iranian government was slow in responding to the outbreak; and when it finally realized its scale and scope, Tehran was hampered by shortages caused by sanctions. Moreover, the government has kept a worryingly tight grip on the information flow to save face, prompting fears that the death toll—currently listed as 988—is probably much higher than the official figures suggest.

With Tehran’s initial response being dismissive of the risks of the virus’s spread and slow to mobilize against it, the government is now pleading for international assistance. Having already scored several calamitous own goals in recent months—raising fuel prices with little warning in November 2019, then violently suppressing subsequent protests, and in January downing a Ukrainian civilian airliner in the apparent belief it was an incoming U.S. missile—the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis could increase the population’s sense that its leadership is incompetent.

Meanwhile, the impact of the rapidly spreading disease and collapse in oil prices will likely present almost unprecedented challenges to an economy that is already beset by government mismanagement and under siege from U.S. sanctions.

One Iranian official calculated a drop of 18 percent in trade as a result of the pandemic—and that was before Iraq, a key regional trade partner, announced a full closure of the two countries’ common land borders and the price of crude tumbled below $30 per barrel. (While Iran’s exports have been blocked by the United States since April 2019, it has continued to make sales to China, albeit at sharply reduced levels.) The combination of reduced regional trade, evaporation of remaining oil revenue, and COVID-19’s impact on domestic business could prove catastrophic.

But that doesn’t mean that Tehran will bow to U.S. pressure and back down. Indeed, since May 2019, when the Iranian government chose to counter U.S. maximum pressure with a blend of nuclear and regional provocations, the system’s hard-liners have contended that high-risk brinkmanship yields greater dividends than restraint.

Feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction.

The coronavirus outbreak has now put more pressure on the leadership’s calculus. Feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction. This is also the view of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, who told Congress on March 10 that the outbreak “probably makes them, in terms of decision-making, more dangerous rather than less dangerous.”

With U.S. President Donald Trump focused on the domestic economic and electoral effects of the coronavirus and the Iranian leadership highly reluctant to display any weakness to the United States, neither side is likely in the mood to engage the other.

That would be a missed opportunity. Indeed, both Washington and Tehran have floated ideas that, if acted upon, could break the current vicious cycle. Pompeo has urged the Iranian government—which furloughed tens of thousands of convicts due to fears of an epidemic in prisons—to free U.S. prisoners and other dual and foreign nationals on humanitarian grounds. The death of any of those inmates from COVID-19 would be a stain Iran might find hard to erase.

Conversely, Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding and a substantial list of essential equipment ranging from gloves and masks to portable respiration and X-ray machines. If the Trump administration stands in the way of such basic needs—by voting against an IMF loan to Iran—the United States would find it hard to overcome the impression that it had acted inhumanely.

The most logical and mutually beneficial outcome would be a two-phased humanitarian de-escalation.

The most logical and mutually beneficial outcome would be a two-phased humanitarian de-escalation. Iran would need to first agree to furlough all detained foreigners as the U.S. facilitates the transfer of medicine and medical equipment Iran needs to contain the outbreak and save lives without any sanctions-related delays.

In the second phase, the U.S. government could agree not to block the IMF loan to Iran while Tehran freezes its nuclear escalation and reins in its allied groups in Iraq, preventing any further attacks on U.S. forces and assets. This phase could also comprise another prisoner swap, either on par with the one-for-one exchange that happened back in December or, even better, a broader exchange of prisoners. This would be a win-win: putting tensions with Iran on ice, providing Trump with another success in his efforts to free Americans detained abroad, and providing Tehran with some economic reprieve and the means to save lives at home.

Since 2018, when the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington and Tehran have been on a collision course pitting unrealistic U.S. demands against Iranian inflexibility. For either side to let a possible diplomatic off-ramp pass by would mean that a dangerous and deadly situation might again take a turn for the worse.


President & CEO
Project Director, Iran