What You Need To Know About The Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a news conference after he delivered remarks to the United Nations Human Rights
Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a news conference after he delivered remarks to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, March 2, 2015, in Geneva. Kerry discussed ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, and tensions with Russia over Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Ali Vaez about the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

International negotiators in Geneva have just over two weeks left to bring years of talks between Iran and six world powers to fruition by reaching a framework for an agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

Representatives of Iran and the so-called P5+1 group -- the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany -- have set a March 31 deadline to reach a basic understanding for a nuclear deal. The parties then have until the end of June to hammer out the remaining details.

The talks stem from international powers' concern that Iran is using its nuclear enrichment program to build a nuclear weapon. Iran insists the program is only for peaceful purposes.

The WorldPost spoke with Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst on Iran, about the ongoing talks.

What do Iran and the world powers aim to accomplish with this agreement?

Iran's nuclear program has been under international scrutiny for the past twelve years and has resulted in an international standoff between Iran and the West. The primary goal from the Iranian side is to normalize the nuclear program. The second goal is to make sure the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran as a result of the nuclear program are lifted.

The P5+1 group wants to make sure that Iran’s nuclear activities are purely peaceful and that there is no nuclear material and activity in Iran that could be diverted towards nuclear proliferation and weaponization.

In November 2013, the two sides took a first step in a very long journey towards their ultimate goals. The first-phase agreement froze some of the most sensitive nuclear activities Iran was conducting at the time, in return for limited and reversible sanctions relief.

In the current negotiations, Iran wants a more permanent form of sanctions relief. In addition to suspending some of its nuclear activities, the P5+1 wants Iran to roll those activities back and also accept and implement monitoring mechanisms that would allow inspectors much better access to verify the peaceful nature of the nuclear program.

What is on the table today?

Since the talks are still ongoing, it's difficult to talk about the details of the agreement with a high degree of certainty. But the contours of a possible agreement are more or less clear. What we know is that Iran will roll back its enrichment activities -- the process that is used to enrich uranium to be used in nuclear power reactors or in a nuclear weapon. Iran will reduce the number of centrifuges that it currently has installed from about 20,000 to a number between 6,000 and 8,000, and it will also reduce its current stockpile of enriched uranium from about 8,000 kg to something below 1,000. Those moves will increase the time that Iran would need to produce the material needed for a nuclear weapon from about three months to 12 months.

In return, sanctions that have been imposed on Iran as a result of its nuclear program are going to be lifted in a phased and incremental manner. Most likely, Iran's actions are going to be pegged to sanctions relief, meaning that Iran would take some specific measures and in return some specific sanctions would be lifted. Iran will also accept the most rigorous monitoring mechanism that has ever been implemented on a nuclear program in the world.

Do you consider this a "good" deal?

Good means different things to different people, but we should realize that diplomacy by nature does not produce perfect outcomes because both sides have to compromise. We should compare the agreement to its alternatives, and the reality is that what is currently being negotiated will virtually block all of Iran's pathways to a nuclear weapon. In that sense I think it is a good deal. It does not totally eliminate the risk, but it diminishes it really significantly.

We should compare it to the alternative: no deal at all. With a deal, Iran will roll back its enrichment capacity. Without a deal, the capacity will be jacked up and the time Iran needs to produce the material for a nuclear weapon will be reduced to maybe just a few weeks. The inspection mechanisms that are currently in place will be much less intrusive than in the case of a deal, and the stockpile of enriched material that Iran has access to will grow instead of being reduced.

Without a deal, Iran keeps its heavy water reactor that produces enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon per year, and there's a risk that it could use the plutonium parts for nuclear weapons. With a deal, that reactor is going to be converted and it will produce less than a kilogram of plutonium per year, which means it would take Iran eight years to accumulate enough material for a nuclear weapon.

From an Iranian perspective, with a deal, Iran will not only have sanctions relief but will be able to find its way back to the international market. Without a deal, Iran will be isolated, sanctions will probably increase and we will get into a spiral of escalation on both sides that could lead to military confrontation.

How are the negotiations perceived in Iran?

With 80 million people, Iran is a big country and it is very pluralistic. There’s a broad spectrum of reactions. Some are extremely critical of the approach that the current Iranian negotiating team has adopted. Others are very supportive.

There's a small but very vocal group of hard-liners that would like to see the talks derailed. But overall, there's a sense of fatigue within the Iranian population after years of economic hardship and isolation. As was demonstrated in the presidential elections of 2013 that brought President Hassan Rouhani to power, the majority of the Iranian people want this issue to be resolved. There's broad-based support within the population and within the media. The political elite is also quite supportive.

Did the letter sent by 47 Republican U.S. senators warning Tehran that the next president could revoke any agreement reached by the current White House affect Iranians' perception of the negotiations?

The letter was obviously designed to sabotage the talks by dissuading the Iranians from making any concessions. Monitoring the Iranian media and reactions from Iranian officials so far, it appears the letter has missed its target.

First of all, it doesn’t come as a surprise to the Iranians -- they already knew that Congress is not going to cooperate with the White House on this subject. This was also calculated into their negotiation strategy. Some of the measures that Iran is going to accept are bound to the U.S. government taking sanctions legislation to Congress. So if Congress fails to lift the sanctions, the Iranians will also renege on their end of the bargain.

The Iranians also insisted to focus on U.N. sanctions instead of unilateral U.S. sanctions, because the U.N. sanctions formed the basis of legitimacy of all the unilateral sanctions. Even if the next U.S. president revokes the deal, the U.S. would have a much harder time bringing international support for enforcing the sanctions without a U.N. mandate. The Iranians require the U.N. sanctions to be lifted in the early stages of the agreement.

The Republicans weren't the only one to criticize the negotiations this month. In a speech to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his case for why he considers the agreement "a bad deal." Did Netanyahu's speech come as a surprise to Tehran?

I think this level of politicization of the issue was quite surprising to the Iranians. The circumstances surrounding the speech turned the Iranian nuclear program, for the first time, into a partisan issue. But at the end of the day, Tehran knew that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s problems with the Iran deal are not about Iran enriching uranium but about Iran being enriched by any deal.

The speech alienated a lot of Democrats, and that inadvertently backfired on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Republican allies in Congress, because now it’s much harder for them to push for legislation to block the agreement -- they simply lack a veto-proof majority in the Senate. So even though the speech was very powerful, it made the Israeli prime minister and the Republicans be seen internationally as pursuing maximalist demands aimed at derailing the negotiations. The Democratic support that was there -- before the speech and before the letter -- to put more pressure on Iran evaporated.

Do you think the negotiators will be able to come to an agreement?

I'm cautiously optimistic. I think the chances have significantly improved over the past few weeks because the talks have made significant progress on the most intractable issue in these negotiations: the problem with enrichment capacity. Defining Iran’s future enrichment capacity has created a momentum that could help them basically overcome the remaining differences on other issues. We’ve never been closer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.