The Iran Interim Nuclear Deal Is Three Months Old -- How Is It Going? What's Next?

Iran's nuclear progress has been halted for three months, and Iran has received some limited relief from sanctions under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreed on November 24, 2013 and implemented on January 20, 2014. Three months after taking effect, all sides report that the agreement is being fairly implemented. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has been dramatically reduced and all sides report private ongoing negotiations among Iran, the UN Security Council Permanent members, Germany and the European Union are making progress.

A number of key issues have emerged, however, as analysts look ahead to what a final comprehensive agreement among the parties might look like. It remains hard to see precisely how an agreement can be crafted that allows Iran to pursue uranium enrichment while providing the United States and others confidence that Iran will remain a non-nuclear weapon state. Trust, despite three months of progress, remains in short supply. This is not surprising after 30 plus years of isolation and hostility.

However, the fact that both the Iranian and American leaders are pursuing such an agreement offers hope that a final settlement might be negotiated. As the parties pursue such a deal, there are a number of issues that analysis should keep in mind and are very much on the table in these talks.

Iran's Future Uranium Enrichment Program

The parties have endorsed, for now, Iran's ability to continue enriching uranium, as long as the enrichment product does not exceed 5 percent U-235. Iranian officials have insisted that they will not give up their enrichment program and continue to press for maintaining a very large enrichment capability. Several officials have sought to use the operation of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant as a basis for sizing Iran's future enrichment program, something that would make meaningful limited on Tehran's enrichment capabilities all but impossible to construct. For their part, western officials have been pushing Iran to abandon its enrichment program altogether, or at the very least to accept major numerical and technical constraints on its enrichment capacity to ensure that a significant amount of time would be required for Iran to produce enough weapon-usable uranium should it choose to do so. Few continue to deny that Iran has the technical skill to enrich uranium to a high enough level and to build a basic bomb, should it choose to do so. As such, built in time constraints on Iran's break out capability are the basis for any future assurances. Building in a lot of lead time will require severely limiting Iran's enrichment program to no more than a few thousand first generation centrifuges and a cap on the amount of 5% enriched materials that can be in the country at any time. Intrusive inspections will be a must, something Iran appears ready to accept through the IAEA Additional Protocol process.

Such a deal would be a major reduction from the 20,000 some odd centrifuges Iran now has at Natanz and Fordow, and far less than needed to produce fuel for Bushehr, something Russia is already contractually obligated to do. Other states not directly engaged in the negotiations like Israel are pushing for Iran to be kept from having any enrichment capability at all, and it remains unclear if and how they can be convinced to accept anything more than this absolutist position.

Thus, key to any final agreement will be whether Iran will be allowed to maintain any enrichment capacity and, if so, at what level. If the parties can square this circle - a major question - then they will have the even more difficult job of selling such an agreement back home and explaining why such a deal is better than reaching no agreement at all. In the United States and Iran, this will be very challenging as both have strong critics of their leadership negotiating over the nuclear issue in the first place. Israel is likely to use its political influence in the United States to encourage the US Congress to oppose and, if possible, scuttle such a deal.

Iran's Nuclear Past

There is a lot of evidence that Iran pursued a nuclear weapon program until at least 2003. While not conclusive, there is a lot of credible information to support this claim. (See Fact Sheet the Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's Nuclear Program). These weapon-related allegations have been the basis for a prolonged dialogue between Iran and the IAEA for many years and the IAEA has yet to resolve all of its outstanding concerns. At the very least, Iran has not done all that it can to resolve these outstanding questions, allowing mistrust to linger.

It remains unclear whether the ongoing P5+1 negotiations with Iran can achieve a final comprehensive settlement if Iran does not fully satisfy the IAEA's investigation on alleged past nuclear weapons work in Iran. At some point, the IAEA may be asked to assess whether any of the unresolved issue would impede its ability to implement full inspections under a future agreement. That answer will obviously depend on the nature and content of the final agreement.

It appears unlikely that Iran will be willing to publicly acknowledge any past pursuit of nuclear weapons, per se. The fact that Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued a religious edict (Fatwah) that nuclear weapons are against Islam makes any admission of past pursuit problematic. However, the parties may be able to find a way for Iran to respond confidentially to the IAEA's investigation as long as they are not made fully public and Iran is assured that they will not face additional sanctions for doing so. This example has been a model for past settlements, including in key US allies such as South Korea and Taiwan. This may make the issues the IAEA needs to resolve to ensure it can pursue future safeguards easier to address and define.

Iran's Ballistic Missile Program

The United States and major European powers are interested in curtailing Iran's ballistic missile program, as well as in gaining assurances that Iran's nuclear activities are completely peaceful. Iran has denied any interest in developing nuclear weapons, but has a large and ambitious ballistic missile development program. Some of these systems, including the Shahab-3 (a variant of the North Korean No-Dong I missile) can reach parts of Europe and there are reports that Iran is continuing to expand the range of its missile systems.

Western officials have sought to include the ballistic missile issue - a topic included in multiple UN Security Council Resolutions sanctioning Iran - in the talks with Tehran. Iran, for its part, has resisted any merging of the nuclear and missile issue. It remains unclear whether the P5+1 will accept an agreement that does not address ballistic missiles, and whether Iran will agree to any deal that does. It is possible this issue may be tabled for further discussions after a final agreement on the nuclear issue is reached.

Nuclear Vs. Non-Nuclear Sanctions

Iran is the target of hundreds of nuclear-related sanctions by the United States, European countries and the European Union. Russia and China, as well as all UN states are also obligated to comply with sanctions levied against Iran for being in non-compliance with its inspection obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran, however, is also the subject of US and multilateral sanctions related to other issues, including support for terrorist groups and human rights abuses.

To accept limits on its nuclear program, Iranian officials are going to press hard for full and complete relief from these sanctions. If such a deal can be reached and sanctions lifted, the parties will have to confront the fact that Iran is sanctioned on multiple grounds,not just on the basis of its nuclear activities. If left in place, these other penalties will affect Iran's desire to increase its economic prospects if it complies with a possible nuclear deal.

US political officials are concerned not only with Iran's nuclear program, but with the full suite of actions pursued by Tehran that is widely seen as antagonistic to US interests in the region, including the threats posed against America's closest ally in the region, Israel. Any nuclear sanctions lifted could be re-imposed on other grounds. Even if he wanted to, no U.S. President could promise that other sanctions would not be levied by the U.S. Congress over his veto. There is no quick or easy answer to this issue, as witnessed by the recent move by the US to ban the entry into the United States of Iran's named UN Ambassador because of alleged terrorist ties.

It is Going To Get Interesting By some measures, the implementation of the JPAO has been relatively smooth for the first three months. Now, however, things may be much more difficult. The issues listed above are raised not to dampen the prospects for a negotiated outcome, but to remind observers and analysts of the complexities confronting both the negotiators and the political leaders engaged in the current discussions. That an interim agreement has been established is remarkable. Achieving a sustainable final agreement will take an even more herculean effort. Both US and Iranian leaders have suggested the odds are against a final deal. But for now, at least, they continue to pursue such a pact. ------ This article was first published at