WASHINGTON -- Iranian and American negotiators give themselves a 50-50 chance of reaching a nuclear agreement before Tuesday's deadline, with several notable disagreements remaining in the political framework.
Negotiators have been hesitant to publicly share details, but there is obvious discord between Iranians and the U.S. on Iran's demand for sanctions relief. Iranians have long insisted that a final agreement, to be reached by June 30, should trigger an instant lifting of the broad sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations. American negotiators have argued that sanctions relief must occur gradually, as Iran demonstrates compliance with terms of the nuclear agreement.
Both sides are facing tremendous pressure back home to avoid compromising. Sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, which is heavily dependent on oil exports. Perhaps more importantly, Iranians see the international sanctions as an injustice that should be reversed immediately as part of any comprehensive nuclear deal.
In Washington, President Barack Obama is having an increasingly difficult time holding back U.S. lawmakers, who are eager to weigh in on the nuclear talks.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is pushing for a veto-proof majority on a bill that would allow Congress to vote on the final deal and strip the president of authority to temporarily waive sanctions. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) became the most recent Democratic senator to lend his support, tentatively putting the Corker bill about four votes shy of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.
Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have formidable support for a separate bill, which would impose new sanctions on Iran if negotiators fail to reach an agreement by the June 30 deadline. Sensing hesitance from Democrats, Menendez agreed to delay voting on the bill until after the March 31 deadline.
Obama has promised to veto both bills and has pleaded with lawmakers to hold off on legislation until the negotiations are complete. The president said either the Corker or the Kirk-Menendez bill would likely derail negotiations at this point. Failure to reach a political framework by Tuesday could prompt lawmakers to take action.
Sanctions are far from the only hurdle. Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges, including 10,000 that are spinning to produce uranium. While leaked details of the talks indicate that the parties have agreed to Iran keeping about 6,000 centrifuges in operation, there is disagreement about how sophisticated the remaining centrifuges can be, and where they can produce uranium.
On Thursday, The Associated Press reported that Tehran may be able to continue running centrifuges at Fordow, a once-secret underground bunker that would likely be invulnerable to a military strike if it were to host illegal nuclear activity in the future.
Menendez responded to the report with outrage. “We have pivoted away from demanding the closure of Fordow when the negotiations began, to considering its conversion into a research facility, to now allowing hundreds of centrifuges to spin at this underground bunker site where centrifuges could be quickly repurposed for illicit nuclear enrichment purposes,” he said in a statement. “My fear is that we are no longer guided by the principle that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal,’ but instead we are negotiating ‘any deal for a deal’s sake.’”
The rumored concession at Fordow would be in return for increased limitations on centrifuges and research and development work at other nuclear sites, according to the AP. Fordow would be subject to international inspections and the centrifuges there would operate on zinc, xenon, or geranium, rather than uranium, which can be enriched to fuel a nuclear weapon.
Regardless of the number of centrifuges ultimately left in operation, Iran’s stockpiles of uranium puts its breakout period -- the time needed to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon -- less than the one year baseline that the U.S. has insisted upon for any final agreement.
At one point, Tehran appeared willing to ship its stockpile of uranium to Russia, where it would be converted to fuel rods. In recent days, Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi balked at the idea of sending uranium abroad, as first reported in The New York Times. An alternative to exporting uranium may be to dilute it into lower-grade material that could not be used for weapons.
Further complicating the goal of reaching a political framework is defining what that means. Because political and technical components of Iran’s nuclear program often overlap, there has never been a publicly shared list of benchmarks for Tuesday's deadline. In fact, it's unclear whether the political framework should produce a signed document, or simply an understanding between the negotiating parties.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has insisted that there be only one signed agreement -- the final June 30 version, which will include technical details. However, a verbal agreement is unlikely to placate U.S. lawmakers.
Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said critics shouldn't judge the negotiations until the final deadline.
“The March 31 deadline for reaching a framework agreement is a soft target,” Davenport explained in an email to The Huffington Post. “Given that the expectation for the end of March is a broad framework outlining the major parameters of a deal, a signed document is extremely unlikely because there will still be technical annexes that both sides will want to see worked out.
“While failure to reach a framework agreement by the end of March will certainly result in a backlash from those that want to derail negotiations and kill the prospects for a deal, the real focus must remain on completing an entire agreement by June 30,” Davenport added.