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Iran Nuclear Talks: The Fog Recedes

When twelve months of intense negotiations between Iran and the P5+1/EU3+3 ended with yet another extension, sceptics saw this as confirmation that the talks are doomed. But it would be as grave a mistake to underestimate the real progress as to overstate the chances of ultimate success. A landmark agreement is still within reach if both sides adopt more flexible postures on enrichment capacity and sanctions relief.

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I. Overview

The failure of Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, also known as EU3+3) to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement by their self-imposed 24 November deadline was no surprise. The process had been deadlocked for months over two key issues: the size of Iran’s enrichment program and sanctions relief. For want of a last-minute breakthrough, the parties agreed to a new seven-month extension, with the goal of reaching a political agreement by 1 March 2015 and a comprehensive agreement, including an implementation plan, by 1 July 2015. A landmark agreement can still be found if both sides adopt more flexible postures. As Crisis Group has previously written and here reiterates, they can do so without violating their core principles and interests.

Though many sceptics took the extension as confirmation that the entire process is doomed, the parties made considerable progress in Vienna and narrowed their differences on a multitude of issues over the past twelve months. Talks were slowed by the cumbersome multilateral framework and an ill-advised decision to jointly tackle political and technical questions, but as the deadline loomed, negotiators tweaked the process, increased the pace and seriousness of the talks, and affirmed a heightened spirit of dialogue and trust. While an agreement proved elusive, both sides expressed their core political requirements more clearly than before. As a result, never have negotiators had a better understanding of their counterparts’ positions and constraints.

While ultimate success is far from guaranteed, negotiations, in a little more than twelve months, have achieved more than years of escalation: the P5+1 has managed nearly to double both the tempo of inspections and Tehran’s nominal breakout time, the interval required to enrich enough fissile material for one weapon; Iran has pared back sanctions and started to restore its image by honouring its commitments under the November 2013 interim accord. Yet differences remain sharp and overcoming them will grow more difficult with time, as the voices of sceptics get louder. Iran’s redlines are two-fold: first, recognition of its right to industrial-scale enrichment and, secondly, that any irreversible concessions it makes will be met with commensurate steps on sanctions – specifically their termination, not just suspension. As for the P5+1, it insists on denying Iran a breakout time of any less than a year, as well as on maintaining the sanctions architecture – even if some are suspended – for the duration of the comprehensive agreement, since they are the group’s most effective leverage.

As difficult as forging an agreement will be, there is considerable value in having clarified what stands in the way. It would be as grave a mistake to underestimate how far the negotiators have come as it would be to overestimate their chances of success. Obstacles notwithstanding, there is a credible path to an agreement. It would require for Iran to postpone its plans for industrial-scale enrichment while the P5+1 countenances controlled growth of that program and clearly defines target dates for a phased lifting of sanctions.

Now that the fog has receded, the parties should move ahead quickly. The positive momentum will soon fade, and with it, the chances for a peaceful resolution of this protracted crisis.

Istanbul/Vienna/Brussels, 10 December 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.