October 14, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Iran Nuclear Talks Intersect Regional Events
Talks between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear settlement regarding Iran’s nuclear program are set to accelerate before an interim “standstill” agreement (“Joint Plan of Action,” JPA) expires on November 24. High-ranking US negotiators will meet with their Iranian counterparts in Vienna today, and Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif there tomorrow. Subsequently, the formal P5+1-Iran talks will take place nearly continuously until the November 24 deadline.
Assessments of the likelihood of a deal by the deadline differ significantly. Iranian leaders, including President Hassan Rouhani, have alternately expressed both pessimism and optimism. US and other P5+1 negotiators have concurred that agreement is within reach, but that it will require “hard decisions” by Iran to move off its firm opposition to limits on its uranium enrichment program. That formulation is generally understood to mean that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will need to overcome his deep-seated and oft-expressed distrust of US intentions to accept the required concessions. Khamenei’s suspicion is based not primarily on nuclear issues but on his fixation that the US seeks to push back, if not overthrow, Iran's Islamic regime and foist a Middle East dominated by Israel and Sunni Muslim regional states.
The difficulty in overcoming the Khamenei’s reservations was undoubtedly a factor in Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi’s comments on October 10 that the JPA might need to be extended yet again to allow more time for agreement. Under the terms of the original document, the JPA was already extended once (in July 2014) and can be extended by a maximum of another two months (until January 20, 2015). However, the longer time goes on without a deal, the greater the opportunity for hardliners on both sides to undermine one.
The key sticking point remains the issue of the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The P5+1 demands that an agreement requires Iran to retain only a small enrichment capacity—no more than about 2,000 centrifuges in a final deal. Foreign Minister Zarif has offered a proposal to retain Iran’s existing number of operating centrifuges–9,000. Accounts indicate the US might accept an agreement of about 5,000-6,000 centrifuges, supplemented by additional technical limitations that would slow Iran’s production of enriched uranium. Iranian negotiators have not indicated a willingness to accept such a compromise, and Khamenei continues to assert he will accept no limitations on Iran’s enrichment capacity.
Most of the other issues in the talks appear close to resolution. These include repurposing of Iran’s hardened enrichment site at Fordow, and the re-engineering of a heavy water reactor that could produce plutonium–another source of fissile material. The two sides seem able to finesse other differences, such as Iran’s potential production of nuclear-capable missiles and questions about its past research on a nuclear explosive device. The P5+1 appear to have satisfied Iran’s concerns on the easing of sanctions following a deal, although the duration of the agreement remains unresolved.
Those who are optimistic note that the Iranian public expects a deal, and that Iranian leaders will make the necessary concessions to achieve an agreement. Iranian leaders are concerned about potential domestic unrest if a deal fails and, particularly, if sanctions that have harmed Iran’s economy are not lifted, but they also see a nuclear deal in broader regional terms.
Iranian negotiators have sought to take advantage of the intersection of the talks with the US-led military action against the so-called Islamic State (IS). President Rouhani has openly stated that a nuclear deal (i.e., increased US concessions in the talks) would pave the way for greater tacit cooperation with US efforts to degrade and defeat IS forces in Iraq and Syria.
While resisting any linkage between the talks and Iran’s cooperation against IS, US officials have sought Iran’s help in that effort. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice repeated on October 12 that there is no US coordination with Iran on IS issues. However, she acknowledged that US officials have discussed the IS crisis on the sidelines of all recent nuclear talks. US officials admit that Iranian actions have benefitted US policy by helping move aside Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and by organizing ground military efforts to break the IS siege of the majority Shi’a Turkmen enclave of Amerli in Iraq. Iran also has provided weapons to Kurdish fighters resisting IS in both Iraq and Syria, including those attempting to hold off the IS assault and capture of the Kurdish-inhabited town of Kobani on Syria’s border with Turkey. However, US officials maintain that these actions are in Iran’s own interests and that fundamental P5+1 requirements for a nuclear deal must be met notwithstanding such Iranian cooperation.
Aside from wresting substantive nuclear concessions from the P5+1, Iranian leaders are also hoping that a nuclear deal will halt any evolution of the US-led military effort against IS into a campaign to pressure the Assad regime militarily. Assad’s Syria is Iran’s closest Arab ally. Iran fears that the Sunni states in the US-led coalition–particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates–will succeed in pressuring the US to expand the military mission to include the overthrow of Assad. Iranian leaders calculate that a nuclear deal that ends Iran’s estrangement from the US could help Tehran counter the influence on Washington of these US allies. Tehran perceives that it could potentially even persuade the US to accept Assad as legitimate partner against IS. A US shift to that extent, however, remains unlikely.
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