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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

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

Israeli PM Netanyahu presents imagery of an Iranian "secret nuclear site" in Jerusalem on 9 September. Prime Minister of Israel

Iran Briefing Note #13

Iran Briefing Notes highlight and provide context for the previous week’s major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks developments on key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East.

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates.

Events of Note

6 September: National Security Advisor John Bolton shares imagery of Adrian Darya 1 off Syrian coast, adds “Iran’s not getting any sanctions relief until stops lying and spreading terror”.
7 September: Iran detains towboat and 12 Filipino crew on suspicion of fuel smuggling.

7 September: Iranian nuclear agency briefs details of “third step” JCPOA breaches, including the activation of advanced centrifuges.

8 September: Acting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general in Tehran for meetings with senior Iranian officials.

8 September: Iran’s foreign ministry indicates that “the Adrian Darya oil tanker finally docked on the Mediterranean coast and unloaded its cargo”.

8 September: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo estimates that Iran’s “GDP will shrink by as much as 12 or 14 per cent this year”.

9 September: Hizbollah claims to down and retrieve Israeli drone.

9 September: Airstrikes reportedly hit “Iran-backed militias” in Al-Bukamal on Syria’s border with Iraq.

9 September: Israeli military says “a number of rockets were fired from Syria toward Israel… all failing to hit Israeli territory”.

9 September: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that Iran “conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons” at a secret site, Abadeh; Foreign Minister Zarif hits back saying that “the possessor of real nukes cries wolf”.

10 September: Drone strike reported against Iraqi paramilitary weapons facility in Anbar province.

10 September: Secretary of State Pompeo contends Iran’s “lack of cooperation with IAEA raises questions about possible undeclared nuclear material or activities”.

10 September: President Donald Trump announces departure of John Bolton as U.S. national security adviser.

10 September: U.S. Treasury announces sanctions designations against “fifteen leaders, individuals and entities affiliated with terror groups”, including from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods force and Hamas.

September Surprise

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 9 September claimed to expose a “nuclear weapons development site” near Abadeh and called for “pressure, pressure and more pressure” against Iran.

Why it matters: Netanyahu’s disclosure, based on Iranian archives exfiltrated by Israeli intelligence last year, left some key details unaddressed: namely, what sorts of experiments Iran had conducted and when. But it underscored the recent prioritisation of Iran’s nuclear activities as the most pressing issue for Israel’s military and intelligence services. The timing of the announcement, just days before Israelis head to the polls on 17 September, led Netanyahu’s political rivals to cry foul; his office insisted the disclosure was appropriate given parallel developments in Vienna (see below). Expect Netanyahu to throw more surprises, particularly if, as Israeli officials have reportedly concluded, the prospects for some kind of U.S.-Iran diplomatic breakthrough increase.

Once More into the Breach

A spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) on 7 September confirmed that “we have started lifting limitations on our research and development imposed by the [nuclear] deal”, including the activation of advanced centrifuges.

Why it matters: Iran’s third step in reducing its compliance with the JCPOA furthers its staggered breaches to add urgency without emergency vis-à-vis European efforts aimed at countering the economic toll of U.S. sanctions; a 60-day clock is already running toward the next rollback. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on 8 September asserted that “the channels for dialogue are still open… [but] Iran must give up such actions”. Meanwhile, the IAEA’s Acting Director General, Cornel Feruta, on 9 September told the IAEA Board of Governors that in Tehran the previous day he “stressed the need for Iran to respond promptly to Agency questions related to the completeness of Iran’s safeguards declarations”. “Time”, he added, “is of the essence”.

Signed, Sealed… Delivered.

Iran’s diplomatic spokesperson on 8 September announced that the Adrian Darya 1, which was released from detention by Gibraltar last month after Tehran provided “written assurance” that the crude oil cargo would not go to a recipient blacklisted under EU sanctions, had “unloaded its cargo” at an unnamed Mediterranean destination.

Why it matters: Following a commando operation, a seizure, a U.S. warrant, a release, a renaming, a sanctions designation, a failed financial inducement and a sighting off the Syrian coast, the 2.1m barrels aboard the Iranian tanker have apparently found a home. But while Tehran trumpeted the sale “despite all the malicious attempts” to block it, there will almost certainly be consequences: the UK – one of Iran’s three European JCPOA interlocutors – on 10 September protested that “Iran has shown complete disregard for its own assurances” and plans to pursue the matter at the UN. The setback is also unlikely to deter continued U.S. efforts to disrupt Iran’s evasion of its unilateral sanctions, leaving the hatch open to future rounds of intrigue on the high seas.

Exit John Bolton

President Donald Trump on 10 September announced that he had “informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House”, adding that “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions”.

Why it matters: In the hours before President Trump announced his sacking, National Security Advisor John Bolton fired off two tweets. The first contended that “two weeks from the UN General Assembly, you can be sure Iran is working overtime on deception”, while the second declared that “we stand strong against regimes that sponsor terror”. As the White House debates whether and how to respond to French proposals to de-escalate tensions ahead of the General Assembly, the departure of perhaps the most hardline voice on Iran inside the administration could move the needle toward U.S. acceptance of limited sanctions relief, which Trump has been considering and which Bolton opposed, in return for Iran returning to compliance with the nuclear accord and agreeing to enter into negotiations over a broader deal. Some reduction in sanctions was one of Iran’s prerequisites for a meeting between Trump and President Rouhani on the margins of the General Assembly. A package deal would still need to be agreed, and Tehran appears very leery of such an encounter. But Bolton’s departure could mean more flexibility on the U.S. part, and greater confidence on Iran’s.

What to Watch

12 September: Prime Minister Netanyahu in Sochi for meeting with President Putin.

16 September: President Rouhani in Ankara for Syria summit with Presidents Erdoğan and Putin.

17 September: Elections in Israel.

17-30 September: UN General Assembly, which Iran has announced Rouhani will attend; JCPOA Joint Commission meeting on the sidelines.

22 September: 39th anniversary of start of Iran-Iraq war.

5 November: Iran’s next announced deadline for further reducing its JCPOA commitments.

Download the printable PDF and browse our interactive U.S.-Iran Trigger List for more updates.