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Iran and the P5+1: Getting to “Yes”
Iran and the P5+1: Getting to “Yes”
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation
A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

Iran and the P5+1: Getting to “Yes”

November’s deadline could be the last chance to avoid a breakdown in the Iran and the P5+1 nuclear talks. Compromise on Iran’s enrichment capacity is key to ending the impasse, requiring both sides to walk back from maximalist positions and focus on realistic solutions.

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I. Overview

That nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the UK, U.S. and Germany) were extended beyond the 20 July 2014 deadline was neither unexpected nor unwelcome. The parties had made enough headway to justify the extension, which was envisioned in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) that was signed in November 2013 and came into force in January, but given the political and technical complexity, they remain far apart on fundamental issues. Unless they learn the lessons of the last six months and change their approach for the next four, they will lose the opportunity for a resolution not just by the new 24 November deadline but for the foreseeable future. Both sides need to retreat from maximalist positions, particularly on Iran’s enrichment program. Tehran should postpone plans for industrial-scale enrichment and accept greater constraints on the number of its centrifuges in return for P5+1 flexibility on the qualitative growth of its enrichment capacity through research and development.

Crisis Group proposed in May a comprehensive 40-point plan, comprised of three stages lasting over fourteen to nineteen years, for a nuclear accord. It was 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. That plan remains a solid basis for progress, but since it was published, the parties have forgotten the lessons that enabled them to arrive at the JPOA and made maximalist demands that have changed the negotiating landscape.

As a result, the 40-point plan now needs slight adjustment. Likewise, uranium enrichment, which has emerged as the most contentious and complex issue of these talks, requires more detailed treatment. This briefing updates the previous plan in light of these new realities.

As in 2005, when now President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were last in charge of the nuclear portfolio, negotiators are bogged down in a worn-out debate over exactly why Iran insists on uranium enrichment; its economic logic or lack thereof; whether Iran should be subject to restrictions beyond those imposed on other members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and how to calculate the time Iran would need to enrich enough uranium for one weapon – which, assuming other abilities are present, measures its “breakout capacity”.

Neither side’s technical arguments bear scrutiny in this debate because its roots are fundamentally political. Negotiators are both driven and constrained by their respective domestic politics, especially the U.S. and Iran, where powerful constituencies remain sceptical of the negotiations. The struggle over the number of centrifuges is a surrogate for a more basic one: the Iranian revolution was predicated on rejecting outside powers’ dictates after a century of Western intervention in Iranian affairs; for the West, its concerns are founded on Iran’s behaviour as an anti-status quo, revolutionary power.

While this power struggle cannot and will not be resolved within the framework of the nuclear talks, a workable and wise compromise is still possible. It can be achieved, however, neither by a contest of wills over maximalist positions nor by mechanically splitting differences. Instead, the parties should reverse engineer their underlying political concerns and legitimate interests to find common technical ground: for Iran this means 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, ironclad monitoring mechanisms and sufficient time and Iranian cooperation to establish trust in the exclusively peaceful nature of the country’s nuclear program. If they resolve the key issue of enrichment, other pieces of the puzzle stand a better chance of falling into place. To achieve this goal:

  • Iran should accept more quantitative constraints on the number of its centrifuges; in return, the P5+1 should accept the continuation of nuclear research and development in Iran that would enable Tehran to make greater qualitative progress;
     
  • Instead of insisting on taking responsibility over fuelling the Bushehr power plant by 2021, Iran should commit to using Russian-supplied nuclear fuel for that plant’s lifetime in return for further Russian guarantees of that supply and P5+1 civil nuclear cooperation, especially on nuclear fuel fabrication, that gradually prepares it to assume such responsibility for a possible additional plant or plants by the end of the agreement, in eleven to sixteen years;
     
  • Instead of subjective timelines dictated by the political calendar, both sides should agree to use objective measures, such as the time the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) needs to investigate Iran’s past nuclear activities, to determine the duration of the final agreement’s several phases.

Despite the extra negotiating time, there is no guarantee the parties will be able to reach a compromise that permanently protects everyone’s core interests. Iran’s indigenous know-how could enable it to modify its program after international attention shifts away; the U.S. Congress could prevent the president from delivering on promised sanctions relief. But the alternatives – return to the sanctions versus centrifuges race or recourse to military force – are even less attractive.

A focus on irreducible core interests rather than maximalist stances would represent not a fatal compromise but, perhaps, the key to unlocking these talks. With the costs of failure and the benefits of success so high, there is no room for error and no time to waste.

Istanbul/Tehran/Washington/Brussels, 27 August 2014

Iranians in Tehran protest against the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike in Iraq. 3 January 2020. AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami

A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

With the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the U.S.-Iran standoff has shifted from attrition toward open conflict. Tehran will retaliate – the only question is how – prompting another response from Washington. Allies of both should intercede to stop the exchange from spinning out of control.

The killing by the U.S. of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, marks a dramatic turning point. Soleimani had been in Washington’s crosshairs for many years, and successive U.S. presidents could likely have ordered his assassination in the past. That they chose not to do so suggests that they worried the costs would outweigh the benefits. With his decision, President Donald Trump is making clear that he abides by a different calculus: that, given the vast power imbalance, Iran has far more to fear from war than does the U.S. The strike that killed the Iranian general along with others – notably Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior commander of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia – was, in accordance with this view, meant as a deterrent to further Iranian attacks.

It is almost certain to be anything but. Iran may fear U.S. retaliation, but it fears projecting that fear even more. From its perspective, it cannot allow what it views as a declaration of war to remain unanswered. It will respond and now must decide whether its reaction will be direct or through the array of proxies and allied forces Soleimani helped build; immediate or deferred; in Iraq or elsewhere – in the Gulf, Syria or beyond. The U.S. presence in Iraq, already shaky after the 29 December strike that killed two dozen members of a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia, is now hanging by a thread; the Trump administration may decide to depart preemptively rather than be forced to leave on Baghdad’s orders. The truce in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Huthi fighters also is in greater jeopardy. Watch in particular for Iran’s announcement of its next steps on the nuclear front, taken in response to Washington’s violation of the 2015 deal. A serious step on 6 January had been predicted; in all likelihood, it just got far more serious.

A U.S. president ... has just brought war one step closer ... many across the region will pay the price.

The U.S.-Iranian game has changed. Their rivalry for the most part played out as an attritional standoff: Washington laying siege to Iran’s economy in hopes that financial duress would lead either to its government’s capitulation to U.S. demands or to its ouster; and Tehran responding with actions that maintained a veneer of plausible deniability. Targeting Soleimani is liable to mark a shift from attrition toward open confrontation.

In short, a U.S. president who repeatedly claimed that he does not wish to drag the country into another Middle East war has just brought that war one step closer. And a U.S. administration that argues it killed the Iranian general in order to avert further attacks just made those attacks more likely. Iran will retaliate; the U.S. will avenge the retaliation; and many across the region will pay the price.

Crisis Group is in the business of policy recommendations aimed at averting conflict. It is also in the business of realism. Some kind of conflict is now all but guaranteed, facilitated no doubt by a series of Iranian actions of which Soleimani was a mastermind, but rooted in President Trump’s ill-advised and reckless decision to exit the nuclear deal and embark on a policy of “maximum pressure” that led, almost inexorably and certainly predictably, to today’s crisis. The outcome is all the more tragic because the contours of a solution have been apparent for months: a tactical détente whereby Iran fully restores its compliance with the nuclear deal, and ends its regional provocations, in return for a reprieve from the crushing impact of U.S. sanctions.

One can only hope that, with encouragement and pressure from the two sides’ respective allies, this perilous tit-for-tat will be relatively contained and of relatively short duration. That, after a few rounds of attack and counter-attack, Washington’s desire to avoid getting sucked into another Middle East war and Tehran’s interest in averting devastating U.S. strikes, will drive both toward de-escalation. One can only hope. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.