TSG IntelBrief: Stakes are High for Iran Nuclear Talks
January 15, 2015

Stakes are High for Iran Nuclear Talks

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany) are struggling to make progress in renewed talks this week and next, with a March 1 deadline for the framework of an agreement looming

• Iran’s call for an increased Russian role in the talks, accompanied by a high-level Iran-Russia meeting on January 12, indicates progress on a key proposal for Russia to store Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched (5% enriched) uranium

• The talks reconvene as Iranian hardliners increase their opposition to major concessions and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to stress his distrust that the United States will lift sanctions outright as part of a final accord

• The Obama Administration is reiterating to the all-Republican-controlled Congress its forceful opposition to the passage of any new Iran sanctions legislation, arguing that such action will cause Iran to walk away from the negotiations.

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Iran and the P5+1 are battling a growing pessimism about the course of the negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear accord. Repeated extensions of an interim nuclear agreement (“Joint Plan of Action,” JPA), first agreed in November 2013 and extended twice (in July and then in November of 2014), have increased skepticism in the international community that Iran will, in the end, make the required concessions. The main point of contention remains at it has been all along—the eventual size and scope of Iran’s program to enrich uranium. Iran continues to publicly resist dismantling any of its approximately 10,000 operating centrifuges, which under the JPA continue to enrich uranium to the 5% level appropriate for civilian nuclear power reactors. The P5+1 insists that Iran must dismantle nearly half of them to provide the needed confidence that Iran could not suddenly attempt to “break out” and produce enough weapons-grade uranium (90% enriched) to develop a nuclear weapon.

The talks reconvene as negotiators strive to produce a framework of an agreement by the self-imposed March 1, 2015 deadline. The parties have agreed that a final accord, with all the technical details, is to be completed by June 30, 2015. In the meantime, all provisions of the JPA—including modest sanctions relief and constraints on Iran’s enrichment of uranium—remain in place.

Russia is emerging as the potential key to reaching an agreement. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov of Russia on January 12, purportedly to further explore the proposal for Russia to store Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium as part of a potential comprehensive accord. Finalizing that proposal is crucial because Russian storage of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium would ensure the P5+1 that Iran could not easily “break out” toward a nuclear weapon. Following that meeting, Zarif called on the P5+1 to allow Russia to play a larger role in the negotiations. The two countries also have a common interest in that both are being harmed significantly by the fall in oil prices and by U.S.-led sanctions. Both countries also continue to back the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The United States is attempting to assure Iran that a nuclear deal will result in the permanent sanctions relief that Iran seeks. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Zarif on Wednesday to “take stock, number one, and to provide direction to our [negotiating] teams, number two, and to hopefully be able to accelerate the process to make greater progress.” To reinforce that message, the Administration reaffirmed its opposition to any new sanctions legislation that might be introduced by the all-Republican controlled 114th Congress. The Administration asserted late last week that enacting such legislation would undermine the talks, even if the new sanctions are contingent on failure to reach a final accord. Still, some in Congress argue for moving forward on such legislation, in part on the grounds that doing so might illustrate to Iran that stricter sanctions lie ahead if it continues to refuse P5+1 proposals.

The full U.S. negotiating team led by Under Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman meets with Iranian negotiators today to discuss the nuclear issue and, as has been the case in previous rounds of talks, broader regional issues such as the effort against the Islamic State organization. The United States and Iran will likely also discuss the ongoing conflict in Bahrain, and the takeover of much of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, by the pro-Iranian Zaydis known as the Houthis. Full P5+1-Iran talks begin on Sunday, January 18, and will focus entirely on the nuclear issue and not include any formal discussion of regional issues.

Those who are pessimistic about an accord point to widening differences among Iran’s leaders on the issue. A final agreement will require Iran’s leaders, particularly Supreme Leader Khamenei, to put aside their entrenched mistrust of any major agreement with the United States and its partners—and particularly with the United States. On the eve of the renewed talks, Khamenei restated his longstanding view that the United States cannot be trusted to permanently lift sanctions as part of an agreement. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is attempting—with uncharacteristic forthright and at the risk of aggravating splits in the regime–to counter opposition to a deal on the part of Iranian hardliners. In early January 2015, he proposed to hold a popular referendum, provided for under Iran’s constitution, on any nuclear deal or other issue of major significance. The referendum appeared to represent a threat to override the supreme leader’s likely objections to a deal. However, in practice, it is likely difficult to organize a referendum unless doing so is backed by Khamenei, because the Majles (Iran’s parliamentary body), the overwhelming majority of members of which strongly support Khamenei, is required by Iran’s constitution to authorize holding such a vote.

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