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Quick Thoughts: Ali Vaez on The Iranian Nuclear Agreement
Quick Thoughts: Ali Vaez on The Iranian Nuclear Agreement

Quick Thoughts: Ali Vaez on The Iranian Nuclear Agreement

Originally published in Jadaliyya

This interview with Crisis Group's Senior Iran Analyst Ali Vaez first appeared in Jadaliyya.

On 14 July 2015 in the Austrian capital Vienna, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif jointly announced the conclusion of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States), Germany and the European Union (EU). Later that same day the presidents of Iran and the US, Hassan Rouhani and Barrack Obama, gave televised addresses hailing the agreement that crowned almost two years of intensive negotiations, primarily in Austria, Oman and Switzerland. As part of a series of Quick Thoughts with International Crisis Group Middle East analysts, Jadaliyya asked Ali Vaez, Crisis Group Senior Analyst for Iran, to interpret the substance and context of what is commonly known as the Iranian nuclear agreement.

Jadaliyya: Why did the negotiations fail to meet the initial, self-imposed 30 June deadline, what were the main remaining obstacles, and how were these resolved?

Ali Vaez: In negotiations, as in life, deadlines can concentrate the mind but are often missed because they are both arbitrary and ambitious. In twenty two months of arduous negotiations between Iran, the permanent UN Security Council members and Germany (known as the P5+1 or E3+3), six deadlines lapsed until a deal was finally reached on 14 July. So the 30 June deadline was not particularly exceptional. The reason these negotiations went into a marathon eighteen-day final round of extra time was three-fold:

First, there were a few last minute snags. This was caused by parties walking back on some of the commitments they had made under the April 2015 Lausanne Framework due to domestic political constraints, or because each side was hoping to use the pressure of time to extract additional concessions from the other. Additionally, neither side wanted to be seen by its critics back home as having rushed into a deal out of fear of either missing the deadline or seeing the congressional review period for the agreement being extended from thirty to sixty days after the 10 July deadline.

Second, there was significant discord within the P5+1. For example, on the question of lifting the embargo on conventional weapons imposed by UN Security Council resolutions 1737 and 1929, Russia and China sided with Iran and demanded the immediate repeal of these restrictions. The US and its European allies were by contrast seeking to keep this embargo in place for a much longer period of time if not indefinitely. Finding a compromise on this matter, which was extraneous to the core issue of preventing the proliferation of unconventional weapons, proved more difficult than expected.

Finally, the sheer complexity of the highly technical and detailed 109-page text required a monumental amount of work. Any alteration in one area could affect other, related elements and required painful adjustments. Review of the text by lawyers, and its translation into Persian, were both laborious and time-consuming.

Do you consider the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action a viable agreement, and what do you see as the main achievements for the parties involved?

This achievement is a triumph of multilateral diplomacy and a testament to the seriousness of purpose, patience and persistence of the negotiators involved in this process. Negotiations by nature produce imperfect outcomes. In this case the agreement permits Iran a higher enrichment capacity than the US and its allies would have preferred, while sanctions relief will be slower and more circumscribed than Iran desired. But ultimately both sides realized their interests and can therefore rightfully claim victory.

If fully implemented, this nuclear accord could put an end to a prolonged and multidimensional standoff; effectively block overt and clandestine pathways to nuclear militarization; set a positive precedent for non-proliferation regimes; provide the Iranian people with economic relief; offer a path for normalizing Iran’s relationship with the international community; and thus open the door to the possibility of constructive engagement on critical issues of peace and security in the Middle East.

The accord is historic because of three unique characteristics: it establishes the most rigorous verification and inspection mechanism ever negotiated, turning Iran’s nuclear industry into the most monitored program in the world; it rolls back one of the most extensive sanctions regimes ever imposed on any country according to a balanced formula and reciprocal schedule; and it represents the first instance in which a case considered by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was resolved without resort to war or regime change.

What are the key dates and actions relevant to the actual implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?  

There are several key dates. 14 July, the day the agreement was reached, is dubbed “Finalization Day”. The deal will now have to be endorsed by the UN Security Council, which is likely to issue a new resolution before the end of July. In the meantime, the accord has to be reviewed by the US Congress and the Iranian Majlis (parliament). While there is no fixed timeline for the Majlis, Congress has 60 days to review and approve or reject the deal. If it is rejected, President Obama will have 12 days to veto that decision. Congress will then have an additional 10 days to override a presidential veto. If the deal is submitted to Congress this week, I believe this process will take us to the second half of September.

The next key date is “Adoption Day”, which arrives ninety days after the adoption of a new UN Security Council resolution. On that day, Iran will start implementing its key nuclear commitments by uninstalling two-thirds of its centrifuges, reducing the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium, destroying the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor, and providing more access and information to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This process is expected to take four to six months.

On Adoption Day, the US and EU will issue the waivers and regulations necessary for the lifting of economic and financial sanctions, but whose implementation will be contingent upon IAEA verification that Iran has successfully met its commitments. The day that report is issued by the IAEA is called “Implementation Day”. Upon its publication, sanctions relief will occur automatically. Eight years later, on “Transition Day”, the IAEA will be asked to provide Iran’s nuclear program with a clean bill of health, triggering the lifting of all UN nuclear-related sanctions. In parallel, the Iranian parliament will ratify the Additional Protocol to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the US Congress will terminate all nuclear-related sanctions. Finally, ten years from now the UN will remove the Iranian nuclear dossier from its agenda, and the EU will formally repeal all remaining sanctions including those that were previously suspended rather than terminated.

There are suggestions opponents of the agreement, particularly Israel and the Republican faction of the US Congress, will seek to either prevent the ratification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or obstruct its implementation. What are your views on this?

The agreement has serious critics in Iran, the US and the region. The most important wild cards are members of the US Congress who maintain that the deal does not sufficiently restrain Tehran’s nuclear activities. Passing new legislation to thwart the agreement – even though President Obama has committed to use his veto powers to prevent this – will torpedo the deal and harm the US’s global standing.

The struggle between Congress and the White House is likely to be tough, but President Obama appears to be in a strong position. In fact he needs only slightly more than one-third of the members of either chamber of Congress to prevent any resolution of disapproval and sustain a presidential veto. His opponents need two-thirds of both chambers. Given that 151 Democratic members of the House of Representatives have already supported the president’s diplomatic venture, the odds of the deal surviving are high. It is also difficult to imagine that Senate Democrats will turn their back on their own president and destroy his key foreign policy achievement in the midst of the US electoral season. Having said this, it would be mistaken to underestimate the extent to which the Republicans and even some Democrats are willing to go to torpedo this deal.

What, if any, impact do you think this agreement will have on the broader political dynamics of the Middle East?

The regional consequences of the agreement are unclear. At least in the short term, it is likely to reinforce the sense in regional capitals that Iran’s star is ascendant, which could exacerbate clashes along existing fault-lines. More broadly, both Iran and the West might be tempted to take provocative measures to demonstrate to their respective domestic hardliners and regional partners that their fundamental policies and interests have not changed. To diminish possible negative repercussions, the same countries that championed the nuclear accord should - in cooperation with other regional actors - engage Iran on issues of common concern, such as stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending the bloodshed in Syria and Yemen. For its part, Tehran should take concrete steps to convince its neighbors that, even as it rehabilitates politically and economically, it does not seek to dominate the region.

Trip to Bushehr Province - President visits Bushehr Atomic Plant, 13 January 2015. president.ir

Iran Briefing Note #7

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.

Events of Note:

28 July: JCPOA’s Joint Commission meets for an emergency session in Vienna.

29 July: UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says “no quid pro quo” with Iran over detained tankers. 

30 July: Iran and UAE hold maritime security discussions.

31 July: U.S. and Europeans meet to discuss maritime security in Bahrain.

31 July: U.S. extends sanctions waivers on nuclear cooperation projects by 90 days.

31 July: U.S. sanctions Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

1 August: Syrian state media reports Israeli airstrikes in Quneitra province.

1 August: Bernd Erbel, former German ambassador to Iran, assumes presidency of INSTEX.

Staying the Guns of August

President Trump on 29 July tweeted that “the Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation”. 

Why it matters: Today’s confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is reminiscent of tensions on the eve of World War I. The standoff is akin to what happens when an irresistible force – the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign – meets the immovable object of Iran’s resolve to resist rather than yield. The 31 July decision to blacklist Iran’s top diplomat and label him “an illegitimate spokesman” underscores a fundamental tension in U.S. policy: expressing an interest in talks while undermining prospects for their initiation, let alone success. As tensions escalate, the impact of a potential collision would extend far beyond its two main protagonists. In a new Crisis Group report based on dozens of interviews with U.S. and Iranian officials as well as a broad range of regional policymakers from Yemen to Iraq to Israel, we examine the escalatory risks of a confrontation in key flashpoints and propose a tactical détente whereby Tehran and Washington each take a step back from the brink and let third-party mediators plot a de-escalatory path.  

Nuclear Waivers Live to Fight Another Day

The U.S. on 31 July announced that it was extending waivers on international nuclear cooperation projects in Iran.

Why it matters: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) provides for international cooperation on Iranian civil nuclear projects. After withdrawing from the JCPOA, the U.S. allowed these initiatives to continue by issuing specific waivers. These include converting the heavy-water reactor at Arak into a proliferation-resistant one, turning the Fordow facility into a research and medical centre, as well as Russian cooperation on running the Bushehr power plant. In May, however, the U.S. began to tighten the screws by ending waivers on storing of heavy water and sending enriched uranium abroad. Some in Washington, including a group of lawmakers, had been advocating that the waivers be terminated altogether, further undermining the nuclear deal and putting its remaining parties in a position of violating their JCPOA commitments or else risking U.S. penalties. Iran had suggested that revoking the waivers would give it reason to further roll back its obligations under the deal, while putting the blame on the U.S.’s doorstep. The waivers’ extension for another 90 days provides a reprieve, but the clock has already started ticking, which may reduce the incentive for the other parties to the deal to engage in long-term nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Narrowing the Gulf

A UAE delegation was in Tehran on 30 July for discussions on maritime issues.

Why it matters: Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, the UAE is usually seen as one of the main regional supporters of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy. But growing risks of a U.S.-Iran clash are keenly felt in the Gulf, particularly among smaller states on the front lines of a potential confrontation: an escalation could endanger their infrastructure, economy, tourism and energy exports. While Tuesday’s meeting was ostensibly technical and following up on existing bilateral consultations, the timing and acknowledgement of a “satisfactory” session could signal Abu Dhabi’s interest in a cooling down of tensions. It’s also worth recalling that the UAE was careful not to publicly blame Iran for attacks on tankers in the port of Fujaira in May, and in June drew down its forces from fighting the Huthis in Yemen (though it remains heavily committed in the south of the country). “We are very alarmed at the sporadic nature of the escalation [between the U.S. and Iran]”, a senior UAE official told Crisis Group. “We’re at the brink of something”. The logic may be that keeping channels of communications open translates that alarm into a de-escalatory message intended for both Washington and Tehran.

What to Watch

24-26 August: G7 meeting in Biarritz, France.

6 September: Iran’s next deadline for reducing its JCPOA commitments.

17-30 September: UN General Assembly; general debate begins on 24th.

Click here to see the U.S.-Iran Trigger List, and here for a two-page, printable PDF of the Briefing Note.