April 1, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Iran Deal Remains Elusive

• Iran and the P5+1 countries are expected to issue a joint statement today that outlines most aspects of a comprehensive nuclear deal, but defers some still thorny issues to further talks

• A key remaining sticking point is Iran’s demand for immediate and comprehensive lifting of sanctions, which the P5+1 cannot accept

• The United States is attempting to reassure nervous regional partners, such as Israel and Arab Gulf states, that the U.S. is not making too many concessions for the sake of a deal

• U.S. allies in the region are concerned that lifting sanctions, even if done gradually, will enable Iran to provide even more military and financial aid to the Assad regime in Syria, Shi’a militias in Iraq, and the Houthi movement in Yemen.


Talks on a comprehensive nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 (United Nations permanent Security Council members and Germany) have been ongoing for more than one year under a 2013 interim “standstill” nuclear accord called the Joint Plan of Action (JPA). In November 2014, the parties agreed to outline principles of a comprehensive accord by March 31, with all technical details to be finalized by June 30, 2015.

The parties have been negotiating intensively since the beginning of 2015 and, according to a joint statement expected to be finalized today, have reached agreement on a framework to resolve most of the outstanding technical issues. However, some issues remained unresolved and will be deferred to the finished accord required by June 30. The points where agreement has been elusive include the extent to which Iran will be allowed to continue research and development for advanced centrifuges (which are used to enrich uranium), the pace and extent of the lifting of sanctions, and the intrusiveness of inspections needed to verify Iranian compliance. Iran is demanding that all sanctions, including most U.S. sanctions as well as those authorized by the UN, be removed immediately upon completion of the accord—a position unacceptable to the P5+1.

Both the March 31 and June 30, 2015 deadlines are, to a large extent, arbitrary and self-imposed. These benchmarks were set primarily so that the Obama Administration could show Congress that progress was being made and that no new sanctions should be passed—in order to preclude Iran’s pulling out of the talks. However, these deadlines also serve as triggers for congressional and regional opponents of a nuclear deal with Iran to take action that might potentially derail an accord.

By deferring some issues to further talks, the P5+1-Iran joint statement will likely cause opponents of a deal to increase their agitation. Many in Congress, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Arab Gulf leaders will argue that the Administration is overly focused on a deal—any deal—and is making too many concessions to Iran. These leaders maintain that the failure to meet repeated self-imposed deadlines demonstrates that Iran is not fundamentally willing to give up the aspects of its nuclear program that could eventually produce a nuclear weapon. Israel argues that the reported deal will still leave Iran as a “threshold nuclear state.” The Arab Gulf states fear that a nuclear deal will produce a broader U.S.-Iran rapprochement that could cause the U.S. to reduce its security presence in the region and leave them vulnerable to Iranian aggression.

The feverish attempts to finalize an outline of the deal come in the context of a confluence of events that are heightening regional concerns about Iranian behavior. Israel, the Gulf states, and other countries in the region insist that the sanctions relief under a final deal, even if it does shut down Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, will increase Iran’s ability to expand its regional influence. Saudi Arabia has become so alarmed by the gains of pro-Iranian movements that it has garnered support for a proposed joint Arab force to counter Iranian actions in the region. In March, Saudi Arabia formed a ten-nation coalition and intervened in Yemen’s civil conflict with airstrikes, attempting to prevent a takeover of Aden by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement. Perhaps in an effort to calm Saudi fears, the United States is providing logistical and intelligence support for the airstrikes.

Saudi Arabia had earlier criticized U.S. willingness to indirectly back, with airstrikes, the Shi’a militias that form the backbone of the Iraqi government’s efforts to counter the so-called Islamic State. The militias have thus far been instrumental in the continuing effort to recapture from the Islamic State the largely Sunni city of Tikrit. Though the Saudis are part of the U.S.-led coalition taking military action against the Islamic State, they and other Sunni Arab states allege that the Iraqi Shi’a militias committed vast abuses against Iraqi Sunnis and that their involvement in the battles represent an Iranian “takeover” of Iraq. The Saudis and other Arab leaders have also sharply criticized U.S. hesitation to use force to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, citing Iran and its ally-proxy Lebanese Hizballah as critical to keeping the regime in place.

U.S. congressional opponents of the presumptive nuclear deal with Iran often cite regional fears that a deal will empower Iran financially. Unlike U.S. allies in the region, Congress has the power to directly derail a nuclear deal with Iran. To implement the terms of any accord, Congress will need to pass legislation to permanently lift sanctions on Iran, and congressional refusal to do so would almost certainly cause Iran to abrogate the agreement. Through the lens of Iran’s foes and the Obama Administration’s congressional opponents, a deal—any deal—is a bad one.


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