Pitfalls lie ahead in the Iran nuclear talks

Though almost a week has passed since President Obama unveiled the framework understanding with Iran, the casual observer may be confused as to its value. And little wonder. The president has said it could be a game-changer – a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table”. But the stated parameters of this framework are already fraying at the edges. So where do we stand?

On the face of it, this is a good deal, a very good deal indeed. Supporters on either side have understandably spared no time in heralding it as a “historic breakthrough” achieved against the backdrop of negotiations that appeared agonisingly close to failure. There is nothing like a prolonged period of tension to generate euphoria when the precipice is avoided and success snatched from the jaws of defeat. Much the same happened with the announcement of the interim agreement in 2013 – also hailed as a historic breakthrough. The difference is that this framework “understanding” gives us a much-needed peek at the light at the end of what has seemed like a very long tunnel. After myriad leaks, we have a sense of what the final agreement may look like.

But there is some way to go, and the journey is unlikely to be smooth. That much is clear if one examines the US state department fact sheet issued to complement the announcement made by the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the EU high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini. The formal announcement was somewhat vague, representing a collective attempt to satisfy all parties, but the fact sheet was more precise, containing specific details about the reduction in the number of centrifuges and the nature and pace of sanctions relief as well as the extent of the “unprecedented” inspections regime that Iran would face for up to 25 years. Anyone who feared the United States was giving too much away would have had those fears allayed. Not only would sanctions relief be phased subject to verifiable compliance by Iran of its obligations, but sanctions would “snap back” if at any time Iran was seen to have reneged. Meanwhile, UN security council sanctions – a particularly sore point with the Iranians – would be lifted with the completion by Iran of nuclear-related actions addressing all the key concerns.

The problem is that this fact sheet was not part of any agreement. It has similarities with the appendices that appeared on the Iranian foreign ministry website, but there are also significant differences. Zarif himself was quick to denounce the fact sheet as American “spin”, rejecting any notion of phased relief of sanctions, which Iranian officials have repeatedly stressed must be lifted on the first day of the implementation of the agreement. He said he had protested to the Americans, and that the agreement was effectively an “understanding” with no legal force whatsoever other than to indicate the direction of travel (thus taking care to fall in line with the supreme leader’s injunction that there be no two-stage agreement). From the Iranian point of view, the great achievement was not just that they had achieved official recognition of enrichment on Iranian soil, but that – according to their understanding – not a single nuclear activity would be suspended or closed.

Here there is much scope for disagreement. The Iranian position clearly conflicts with the mooted reduction in centrifuges and has since been softened.

The most obvious symbol of difference is the Arak heavy water reactor, 320km south of Tehran. While the Iranians claim the reactor will be modified and “updated” with international assistance under the management of Iran, the fact sheet states categorically that the current reactor will be redesigned and rebuilt subject to specifications agreed by the P5+1, and the original core “will be destroyed or removed from the country”. The Iranian documentation envisages a 10-year limit on the enrichment of uranium at the Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran, but otherwise there is little detail on time frames envisaged or the proposed inspections regime, and there is no reference to the reduction in the stockpile of enriched uranium.

We may not have the whole picture. There may be private agreements held back by both sides for domestic political purposes. But the public statements suggest a great divergence of opinion beyond the niceties of diplomatic interpretation, and that each has endorsed the deal in accordance with how they perceive it. The cautious support by Friday prayer leaders – said to reflect the views of the supreme leader – are unlikely to have been for the American version of what transpired.

There is a path, but there are also pitfalls, and in establishing a narrative to suit the domestic agenda – a narrative enthusiastically reinforced by much of the western media – the Americans may have made life a little harder for their Iranian interlocutors.

Moreover, the irony will not have been lost on congressional critics that Iranian parliamentarians have insisted, and have received assurances, that they will have to ratify any final agreement. Diplomats on both sides have seized on the re-energised mood to stress that the June deadline can be met. But if experience is any guide, there is a good deal of work to be done. It is not at all clear that we will be witnessing a sprint to the finish.

Ali Ansari is chair of Middle East studies at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of Confronting Iran: the Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Roots of Mistrust.

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