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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

Iran: Preserving the Nuclear Deal

U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has exacerbated tensions between the two countries and endangered the agreement. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to uphold the deal conditionally and to handle other security concerns in the region separately.

The Trump administration’s decision to exit the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and unilaterally reimpose sanctions on Iran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign has put the agreement in significant jeopardy and set the U.S. and Iran on a possible collision course. The remaining signatories to the deal, including the EU and three member states (France, Germany and the UK, collectively known as the E3), are striving to preserve it and Iran has continued to adhere to it. But as sanctions take a severe toll on the Iranian economy, the urge to retaliate against the U.S. withdrawal is building up in Tehran. The accord’s collapse would lead to a renewed and perilous nuclear crisis at a time when tensions across the Middle East are already high, including between Iran and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The EU and its Member States Should:

  • Uphold the JCPOA so long as Iran remains in compliance with its nuclear obligations and implement mechanisms such as the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to ensure the accord delivers at least some of its anticipated economic dividends.
     
  • Undertake more effective public diplomacy, particularly toward Iran and the European private sector, to clarify its policies and explain the complexity of European efforts in adopting such mechanisms.
     
  • Continue discussions with the U.S. regarding member state exemptions on secondary sanctions, particularly with regards to humanitarian trade with Iran.
     
  • Separate efforts to save the JCPOA from their response to other security concerns, including purported plots against Iranian dissidents on European soil and Iran’s ballistic missile tests and transfers.
     
  • Encourage Iran to deepen and widen ongoing EU-Iran discussions on Yemen to include other regional issues as well as Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights.

Threats to Diplomacy and Regional Stability

In May 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would terminate its participation in the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions lifted in 2016 as part of the nuclear agreement. Washington’s repudiation of the JCPOA is part of a wider “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran seeking to not only coerce Iran into renegotiating the terms of a concluded and functioning multilateral accord, enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, but capitulating to a longer list of U.S. demands on Iran’s regional policies and ballistic missile program. The risks in the coming year are threefold: that Iran, seeing dwindling benefits from its continued adherence to the JCPOA, decides to curb or terminate its participation in the accord, sparking a renewed nuclear crisis; that the U.S. and Iran will keep edging toward a direct conflict; and that regional frictions between U.S. and Iranian allies could escalate and draw in other parties.

If Iran’s dividends from the nuclear deal keep shrinking, hardliners in Tehran who call for abrogating the JCPOA and assuming a more confrontational posture in the nuclear realm and the region could gain ground. Sanctions have already weakened Iran’s economy, driving a significant devaluation of the rial, pushing up inflation, curbing the country’s oil revenue (some limited oil waivers notwithstanding) and sinking the economy into a recession. With a parliamentary election in 2020 and a presidential vote in 2021, pragmatic politicians associated with an increasingly fruitless diplomatic approach could lose ground to more hard-line forces critical of international engagement.  

At the same time, tensions over Iran’s regional role and a U.S.-led drive to curb it could leave Washington and Tehran jostling for the upper hand across a string of regional flashpoints, from Afghanistan and the Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Tensions between Iran and Israel are of particular concern, with Israel acting more frequently to counter what it perceives as Tehran’s rising influence across the Levant. A confrontation between Hizbollah and Israel, for example, could rapidly escalate in Lebanon and Syria, drawing in Iran and the U.S. in support of their respective allies.

Bolstering the Deal and Broadening Dialogue

As core participants in the nuclear deal, the EU and three of its member states have thus far delivered a consistent and unified message against Washington’s JCPOA withdrawal and sanctions. High-level European participation in the upcoming ministerial meeting on the Middle East in Warsaw, which will likely see significant U.S. emphasis on criticising Iran, could erode this message and European credibility in Tehran. EU measures to protect the deal, such as the blocking statute introduced in August 2018 and the SPV expected in early 2019, backed by the E3 and designed to facilitate European trade with Iran in a way that bypasses U.S. sanctions, are critical to forestalling the accord’s collapse, and should be fully implemented. Such efforts would be more effective alongside more robust political signalling and public diplomacy campaign underscoring the extent of the EU’s work to preserve the JCPOA, both to the European private sector and Iran itself. Visits by high-level EU officials to Iran, outreach to Persian-language media platforms explaining EU decisions and policy, and the production of readily-accessible information in Persian of relevant EU statements and announcements could each serve to increase the visibility and explain the importance of EU decisions on Iran. Brussels should also intensify its consultations with the Islamic Republic to allow the establishment of an EU delegation in Tehran.

In parallel with these efforts, the EU should encourage the U.S. to issue extended and ideally expanded sanctions waivers for member states, and press for clarity on nuclear and humanitarian exemptions. It can also maintain its dialogues with Tehran on Yemen (there were four rounds of discussions that France, the EU, UK, Germany and Italy held with Iran in 2018) while exploring wider avenues of engagement on both regional and domestic issues. Such conversations may be crucial for eventual talks on building on the nuclear agreement, not least if the U.S. chooses to re-engage diplomatically in due course. 

Preserving the JCPOA does not preclude the EU from pressing Tehran on other security issues, particularly alleged assassination attempts against Iranian dissidents on European soil, renewed ballistic missile testing, and potential Iranian weapons transfers to local allies in the Middle East. The JCPOA does not constitute a carte blanche for Iran to behave in ways that damage European interests. Still, should the EU and its member states eventually place targeted sanctions on Iran, it should make it clear that these measures do not prejudice continued cooperation on the nuclear front.