As negotiations reconvene here in Vienna, Iran and its six counterparts in the P5+1 are close to finalizing a comprehensive nuclear deal that would end over a decade of conflict. How close is close? Some P5+1 negotiators say the deal is 95 percent done – but the remaining five percent is the most difficult details. For both sides, the costs of failure are likely catastrophic. Precisely because the stakes have never been higher, it is important to nail down the sticking points and major obstacles that must be overcome. Six issues in particular are worth keeping an eye on.
Enrichment Capacity. Iran wants to maintain its 10,000 operational centrifuges and freeze centrifuge expansion for the duration of a deal. The P5+1 insists on cutting that number significantly – between 2,000 and 4,000. The sticking point is domestic politics, not science. Iran is insisting upon immediate-term enrichment levels that surpass its current needs. The P5+1 is pushing for immediate limitations that prevent Iran from enrichment levels that it does not have the technical capability to achieve. Unless both sides make the political decision to absorb and sell compromise – 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges – the last best chance to resolve this conflict will be lost.
Sanctions Relief. The P5+1 wants to waive some sanctions and unblock frozen Iranian assets up front, while keeping banking, energy and UN sanctions in place until the deal expires. Iran insists on lifting banking and UN sanctions up front, while accepting waivers on energy sanctions for at least a few years. Iran gave more than it received in the interim nuclear deal, and is looking to collect on that investment. The P5+1 believes it must enforce oil and banking sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance. Neither position is politically feasible. A workable compromise in the first phase of a deal would continue to waive sanctions and unblock frozen Iranian assets, as well as lift bans on the SWIFT financial messaging system and Iranian banks blacklisted by the UN. To truly ensure reciprocity, the P5+1 should go a step further and begin dismantling UN sanctions. Without compromise, negotiations will fail.
Duration of the Deal. The P5+1 originally pushed for a deal lasting 20 to 25 years. Iran refused to accept anything longer than three to five years. Both sides were pursuing purely political objectives that are untenable. Two decades of treating Iranian differently than other Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories fuels rather than allays Iranian suspicions of Western intentions. But decades of mistrust cannot be undone while President Obama is still in office. Negotiations will fail unless the two sides split the difference. Today, they are closer to a politically digestible compromise – in the single digits, six to eight years – with deep, up front reciprocal concessions across the board to help sell the deal and incentivize compliance throughout its duration.
PMD Allegations. Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA regarding its past nuclear activities – particularly possible military dimensions (PMD) – remains a point of contention, but not an insurmountable one. This issue is a direct function of its negotiations with the P5+1. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. No amount of scrubbing sites or shifting soil can remove criminalizing traces of radiation, so the question is not if Iran answers PMD questions, but rather how. The process of doing so will be outlined in any comprehensive nuclear deal, not before a deal is signed. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano acknowledged this in remarks to the Brookings Institution on November 5.
Hostile Legislators. As gaps between the two sides narrow, they both must contend with spoilers at home. In Washington, Congress is poised to pass new sanctions legislation in an effort to torpedo a deal. Obama will veto it, but with Republicans holding a majority in the House and Senate come January, Congress may override his veto. In Iran, a systemic decision has been made to resolve the nuclear issue – within reason. If Congress passes new sanctions, Iranians hardliners will respond in kind by reversing critical concessions made in the interim nuclear deal that moved Iran further away from nuclear weapons. Escalation benefits nobody at the negotiating table.
French Intransigence. Despite repeated proclamations of unity, France remains more hawkish than its P5+1 counterparts. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his counterpart Laurent Fabius in Paris on November 5 in an effort to get assurances that France would not try to undermine the P5+1 position like it did during negotiations in Geneva one year ago. According to some P5+1 diplomats, Kerry left Paris empty-handed. The French position matters: It holds a veto at the UN and EU, thereby making it critical to any future plan for sanctions relief that must be negotiated with Iran this week. It is unlikely France can stop a deal with Iran that other P5+1 members are satisfied with – but we will find out for sure in seven days.
An extension is a possibility, should the two sides not be able to close the gaps, but it carries its own risks. Hardliners in Congress and within Iran will have more time to throw up obstacles and wreak political havoc on the forces in both the US and Iranian administrations seeking to finalize a deal. While the gaps are few, they are significant, but the mood here in Vienna is determined.
This article was originally published in IranWire.