The Iran Nuclear Talks
The Iran Nuclear Talks
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 ministers of foreign affairs and other officials from the P5+1 countries, the EU and Iran while announcing the framework of a Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, Switzerland, 2 April 2015. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
The ministers of foreign affairs and other officials from the P5+1 countries, the EU and Iran while announcing the framework of a Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, Switzerland, 2 April 2015. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE

The Iran Nuclear Talks

In addition to the highly committed negotiators, many have lent a hand to help forge a deal between Tehran and the rest of the world on Iran’s nuclear program. But when it comes to impact per dollar spent on this vital step toward conflict prevention in the Middle East, few can match the record of International Crisis Group.

Before the latest and most successful series of talks began in 2012, Crisis Group had already written five reports on the issue, supervised by Gareth Evans, its then-president and a leading non-proliferation statesman, and guided by Robert Malley, then our Middle East Program Director. In those early papers, at a time when nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the international community were at a standoff, Crisis Group was a lonely voice that laid the analytical base for the eventual core compromise: acceptance of limited Iranian enrichment, in the context of a transparent program under tight controls.

Crisis Group Senior Iran Analyst, on stage ahead of press conference to announce that a deal had been reached, Vienna, Austria, 14 July 2015. TWITTER/Ali Vaez

In 2012, Malley was joined by Ali Vaez, a young Iranian PhD in nuclear and biochemical sciences with a strong record of writing about the talks, who became our Iran Senior Analyst. Fluent in Persian, English and French, Vaez quickly engaged negotiators from Iran and the P5+1/E3+3. In February 2013 he travelled to the talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at that time the only independent analyst following the talks on the ground. Over the next two years he clocked up 300,000 air miles, observing and increasingly engaging with 22 rounds of negotiations at the levels of experts, political directors, foreign ministers, and at the United Nations.

Soon negotiators, non-proliferation experts and high-level officials from Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, the UK and France began to invite Vaez to exchange views by telephone, by email and at the negotiations venue. Empowered by the trust the parties had in his impartiality, insights and the access he had individually built up with all sides, he became a critical sounding board and source of ideas to overcome impasses in the talks.

In the final week leading up to the July 2015 final accord in Vienna, Vaez was effectively on call round the clock. He could be invited by negotiators for breakfast as early as 6am or for late night encounters at 2am on their way to bed. In the heat of the negotiations, the foreign minister of one major party to the talks spent two hours thrashing out ideas with him; on another occasion the entire negotiating team of another country invited him to dinner to discuss ways forward.

Media commentaries by Vaez were circulated among negotiators as he sought to build support for the deal in public opinion, especially in the U.S.. At peak times he gave ten major news interviews per day, making Crisis Group omnipresent on all analysis of the nuclear talks in the international press. The highest impact on the talks however came from six further written reports, a collaborative Crisis Group output to which Vaez was the lead contributor.

A first report in 2012 laid bare the consequences of not making progress, a second shed light on the intertwined spider web of sanctions that confused both the Iranians and Western officials who had levied them against Iran, a third in 2013 underlined the opportunity for real progress created by the emergence of a new president in Iran. The underlying Crisis Group proposals for a solution were increasingly compelling, developed in a virtuous circle of in-depth consultations and back-and-forths with all sides. In May 2014 Crisis Group published Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube, and the ideas this report laid out were rapidly integrated into formal discussions at the negotiating table.

Warren Senate Banking Committee on Iran Sanctions

Senate Banking Committee - Iran Sanctions

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren's Q&A at the U.S. Senate Banking Committee Hearing titled "Iran Sanctions: Ensuring Robust Enforcement, and Assessing Next Steps", 4 June 2013. YOUTUBE/Senator Elizabeth Warren

“I’m sure you’ve seen the report from International Crisis Group in which they evaluated those [tough U.S.] sanctions, in terms of how easy it would be to remove them”, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a public hearing on the talks in June 2013.

“If the Iranians see the sanctions can’t be lifted, then they will be all the more firmly entrenched in pursuing nuclear weapons. We have broad consensus in this country that we would prefer a negotiated solution in the Middle East. If [as Crisis Group argues] badly designed sanctions are going to increase the likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, then we need to focus now on how to fix that”.

As a whole, this series of reports became classic examples of how Crisis Group reporting both does primary research on a conflict and uses that to set the agenda for its resolution. Our commentary and analysis also played a key role in informing the world of what has been agreed so far, and what challenges remained. As well as our contribution of verbatim phrases to the November 2013 “Interim Agreement”, Crisis Group’s 40-point plan towards a nuclear accord presaged many key parts of the April 2015 “Framework Agreement” in Lausanne and eventual nuclear accord in Vienna on 14 July. Iran’s foreign minister sent a private message to Crisis Group acknowledging our significant contribution, and a senior U.S. official wrote: “I am sure you recognize your language in the final text”.

Well before these final agreements, International Crisis Group had already turned its focus to the next stage: convincing Iran’s Majles and the U.S. Congress that the deal was a good one. In April 2015 we published comprehensive talking points for the U.S. and Iranian negotiators to take home and used a popular and innovative infographic to show the advantages for all of a deal against a no-deal. As we drummed home our support for a fair compromise deal, major newspapers from the New York Times to Le Monde had already quoted us more than 150 times in the first half of 2015, not including 13 full interviews and 11 op-eds in English, Arabic, German and Persian. In July, we began to deploy Ali Vaez, other senior staff and board members into our campaign for the deal to be ratified in Washington DC.

Not that Crisis Group is an unknown quantity on this subject in the U.S. capital, of course. In 2015, our former Middle East supremo Robert Malley became Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region. Already in 2014, he had made the best possible use of his long Crisis Group experience on the nuclear issue when he joined the official U.S. negotiating team.

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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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. CRISIS GROUP

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.

Avi Vaez Video Cover

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.

Ali Vaez Video Cover

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.

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