November 14, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Iran Nuclear Talks Enter Final Stages

• Iran and the P5+1 might not forge a final nuclear agreement by a November 24 deadline, but differences have narrowed to the point where agreement is likely shortly thereafter

• The main unresolved issues are the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment program and the duration of the agreement

• The new Iran-Russia agreements under which Russia will reprocess Iran’s enriched uranium and build additional nuclear power reactors in Iran have improved the chances for a P5+1-Iran deal

• A final nuclear agreement would significantly increase prospects for U.S.-Iran cooperation against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and potentially in Syria as well.


Intensive negotiations to reach a final nuclear agreement took place in Muscat, Oman earlier this week, ahead of the November 24 expiration of the latest extension of the interim “standstill” nuclear agreement (Joint Plan of Action, or JPA). The first two days consisted of bilateral talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif—talks that centered on the nuclear issue but also included some discussions of how to defeat the so-called Islamic State organization.

 The third day consisted of talks between P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) negotiators and their Iranian counterparts. The next round of talks will begin in Vienna on November 18, and will take place nearly non-stop in an effort to reach agreement by the November 24 deadline.

No breakthroughs were announced at the conclusion of the talks in Muscat. All sides indicated that it is still possible to reach a final agreement by November 24, but that it was more likely that the parties will agree to a brief extension of the JPA, perhaps until the formal end of the JPA on January 20, 2015.

Reaching a deal by late January would avoid the possibility that the new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, which will begin work in earnest around that time, will pass new Iran sanctions legislation that could cause Iran to walk away from the talks. And, as reportedly expressed in a letter from President Obama to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a nuclear deal could pave the way for increased U.S.-Iran cooperation against the Islamic State. Iran and the United States are aligned in supporting the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi in Iraq, but deeply divided over whether the fate of the Assad regime in Syria. U.S. officials are said to be hopeful of persuading Tehran to engineer an alternative to Assad—an alternative that could preserve Iran’s core interests in Syria while facilitating cohesive resistance to Islamic State forces in Syria.

By all accounts, the main unresolved issue is the size and scope of Iran’s program to enrich uranium. Reported P5+1 concessions include allowing Iran to retain 6,000 of its currently operating 9,000 centrifuges—far more than the 2,000 centrifuges the P5+1 had been demanding as an upper limit. In exchange for that concession, the P5+1 is requiring that Iran eliminate its stockpile of enriched uranium—either by sending it out of the country for reprocessing or immediately converting it to a form that could not be used to produce a nuclear weapon. Removing the stockpile would apparently achieve the P5+1 objective of extending by at least one year the time Iran would need to construct a nuclear weapon. Iran’s current stockpile is large enough that, if enriched further, Iran could potentially manufacture up to six nuclear weapons.

Another key issue that has apparently not been resolved is the duration of the agreement. The P5+1 insists that any agreement last for at least two decades. However, Iran wants to be treated like any other party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in as few as five years, as recently reiterated by the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Admiral Ali Shamkhani.

Russia might hold the key to a P5+1-Iran nuclear deal. U.S. officials have stated in recent months that differences between Russia and the Western powers over Ukraine have not spilled over to dissonance within the P5+1 on the Iran nuclear issue. In early November, Iran and Russia agreed that Russia would take Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched (5% enriched uranium) back to Russia to reprocess it. That bilateral agreement provides a pathway towards P5+1 demands that Iran not possess any stockpile of enriched uranium.

Furthering Russia’s role as a key to a nuclear deal, in mid-November, Russia and Iran agreed that Russia would build two new nuclear power reactors in Iran, with potential to build six more after that. All fuel for the reactors would be supplied and reprocessed by Russia, giving the P5+1 confidence that Iran’s nuclear program would be limited to purely peaceful purposes under any final nuclear deal. This agreement would appear to satisfy Iran’s public insistence that it be allowed to develop a significant civilian nuclear power capability, while undercutting Iran’s argument that it needs to manufacture nuclear fuel by itself. The additional reactors also could satisfy Supreme Leader Khamenei's insistence that any nuclear deal not represent an Iranian “capitulation” to the United States and other Western powers.

It is likely that the P5+1 and Iran will reach a final nuclear agreement by early 2015. The two sides are no longer far apart on substance, and Iran’s public is expecting that there will be a deal that lifts the international sanctions that have greatly damaged the country’s economy. There is no incentive for Iran to walk away from the talks entirely—an action that would almost certainly trigger the Republican-led U.S. Congress to impose even more draconian sanctions on Iran. Combined with a substantial fall in oil prices since late summer, additional sanctions could very well cripple Iran’s economy and cause popular unrest. Furthermore, a nuclear deal would enhance Iran’s influence over the anti-Islamic State coalition, potentially enabling Tehran to keep Assad in power or, at the very least, help arrange a successor government to Iran’s liking.


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