January 7, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Iran Interim Nuclear Agreement: Implementation & Challenges

• The interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (UN permanent Security Council members plus Germany) will likely be implemented—at least for the stipulated six-month duration

• It’s plausible that several subsequent interim agreements will follow the current agreement before a comprehensive deal is reached

• Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states remain less fixed on the terms of a final settlement than on implications for the US security umbrella in the region.

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Status as of the End of 2013

As of late December 2013, the November interim nuclear agreement (“Joint Plan of Action”) between Iran and the P5+1 is holding despite challenges from skeptics on both sides. Implementation talks between technical teams have been taking place, and the two sides have tentatively agreed to begin implementation within the last ten days of January 2014.

The implementation talks include experts on nuclear issues as well as banking, transportation, and energy matters that comprise the sanctions easing side of the agreement. Once agreement on implementation is reached, the six-month interim agreement period will begin, with Iran starting to freeze its nuclear activities as stipulated in the Joint Plan of Action, and the US and partners will incrementally ease sanctions as agreed. 

In concert with the implementation talks, Iran has stepped up its engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in the form of invitations for expanded site visits, to resolve outstanding questions about Iran’s alleged past experimentation with nuclear explosive technology (so-called “Possible Military Dimensions”) of its nuclear program. Clearing up those questions is not specifically covered under the interim nuclear deal but will constitute a significant factor in negotiations on a comprehensive, permanent agreement.

The prospects of ending its isolation appear to have motivated Iran to sign the agreement even more so than the possibilities of sanctions easing. If reaping diplomatic benefits were part of Iran’s calculations, Iran has begun to see some early results. Despite their grudging acceptance of the interim deal, several Arab Gulf states hosted visits by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the agreement was reached. Press reports indicated that Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were on the verge of resolving their longstanding dispute over Iran’s seizure of three disputed Persian Gulf islands—Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb.


Critics Remain Wary

On both sides, the governments that reached the interim agreement have defended it from powerful critics within their political systems and within their alliances. In Iran, major security interests such as the Revolutionary Guards have criticized Iran’s negotiating team for bargaining away new advances in its nuclear program while achieving little sanctions relief. Hardline advisers and consorts of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and hawks in the elected parliament (Majles) have expressed the view that the negotiators have again subjugated Iran to the whims of Western and international manipulation—a charge tantamount to treason. However, Iran’s government, led by President Hassan Rouhani, has been able to parry the criticism because of backing from the supreme leader himself. Khamenei has supported the interim deal and, although he does not have the power to automatically silence all debate, his word is final, and this means that Iran will, in the absence of any perceived provocations, implement its part of the agreement. Still, in late December 2013, hardliners succeeded in obtaining appointment of two favorable parliamentarians to an oversight body monitoring the implementation of the nuclear deal.

In many ways, the Obama Administration will have more difficulty quieting critics and implementing the agreement as stipulated. Some in Congress assert that easing sanctions as part of the interim deal will alleviate pressure on Iran and undo chances of more sweeping measures that compel Iran to permanently end any aspects of its program that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon. As an expression of that sentiment, some US senators from both parties—against the Administration’s direct request—have introduced new sanctions legislation, although the measures would be implemented only if the interim nuclear deal expires.

Iran has said that any new sanctions would “void the deal,” and President Obama has generally backed that position by threatening to veto the Senate bill. The US Senate bill also prompted hardliners in Iran’s parliament to propose legislation to increase uranium enrichment. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was virtually the only world leader to openly and directly oppose the interim nuclear deal. Netanyahu asserts that the interim deal did not dismantle Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure and will lead to an unraveling of the vast Iran sanctions regime. The Obama Administration has, for now, channeled Netanyahu’s sentiments into US-Israel talks on what should be required of Iran in a final, comprehensive settlement, and the prime minister has at least for the time being toned down criticism of the interim deal. Still, Israel’s fixed position on dismantling Iran’s enrichment program decreases the chances of reaching a final nuclear deal, which firmly rejects dismantling that program at any time, under any conditions.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies are less fixed on the terms of a final settlement than on implications for the US security umbrella in the region. Fearing a US-Iran rapprochement as a consequence of the nuclear deal, the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) summit in Kuwait during December, called for a joint military command. The Obama Administration sought to reassure the Gulf states with a visit in December by Defense Secretary Hagel, who asserted that the US would maintain in the region its military force strength of 35,000 personnel. In early December, President Obama signed a presidential directive authorizing US defense sales to the GCC as a whole—in order to accelerate US efforts to construct a GCC-wide, integrated missile defense network against Iran.

 .        • The Administration will continue to work vigorously to combat opposition to the nuclear deal, for the duration of the interim period

• It’s likely the interim deal will be followed by interim agreements which will contain slight modifications and additional sanctions easing

• Israel, with the support of significant numbers in Congress, will argue forcefully against any comprehensive deal that allows Iran to retain more than a symbolic uranium enrichment capability

• Tensions in the Gulf will lessen as the interim deal is implemented, but the US will retain a large presence in the region to reassure the GCC states that the US security umbrella remains intact.


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