Why a Lasting Deal With Iran May Not Happen

Momentum in Washington for a new round of sanctions imperils diplomacy between Iran and the U.S. And things won't get any easier when the two sides resume talks over a nuclear deal.

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, British Foreign Minister William Hague, Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh after a joint press conference in Paris, Jan. 12, 2014.

Now for the hard part.

The interim pact on Iran’s nuclear program, finally sealed on Sunday by Tehran and six major powers led by the United States, takes effect on Jan. 20. At that point, Iran will freeze elements of its controversial atomic program, and Washington will make preparations to release some of the billions in Iranian oil revenues frozen in order to coerce Tehran to the bargaining table. “I think this is an important step,” says Olli Heinonen, former deputy head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body charged with enforcing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. “It is,” Heinonen cautions, “a small step.”

The celebrations that greeted announcement of the agreement on Nov. 24, analysts say, was much less about the content of the document than about Iranian and American diplomats sharing something besides doleful expressions of regret over the state of relations over the last 34 years. The pact does, however, at least pause Iran’s progress toward assembling the elements of a possible nuclear weapon. Tehran says it does not want nuclear weapons; world powers say they need assurances Iran cannot develop the bombs. The next stage of negotiations is aimed at a comprehensive agreement that satisfies both sides without either losing face.

No one is optimistic it can be achieved. President Obama last month put the odds of a final agreement at 50-50. Iran’s chief negotiator isn’t even that optimistic. “I say it’s even less,” deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi told Iranian state television on Sunday. And that was before Congress lurched toward a veto-proof majority on legislation that could blow the whole process to smithereens. Hardliners on both sides have called the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran an exercise in naivete, but some conservatives in Iran actually offered a measure of praise for the interim accord. That’s apt to reinforce the conviction on Capitol Hill that the Islamic Republic is getting off too easily and – whatever the fate of the looming sanctions legislation – further complicate a diplomatic process already tangled in deep-seated distrust on both sides.    

The main points of contention inside the negotiations:

1. Washington wants to permanently limit how much uranium Iran enriches and the level of purity. The higher the purity, the more dangerous – 90 percent is weapons-grade. Under the interim agreement, Tehran will limit itself to 5 percent purity, the level used to generate electricity. But as Aragchi pointed out, Tehran has given up no facilities or capabilities: “We can return to the previous situation within a day,” he said.

2. The heavy-water reactor under construction in the city of Arak. When it starts up, the reactor will produce plutonium, which like weapons-grade uranium can fuel a bomb. Under the interim pact, Iran will continue building the plant but vows not to install nuclear equipment – acknowledging fears that once it’s actually operating the reactor becomes essentially too dangerous to be taken out in an air strike. Iran says Arak will produce isotopes for nuclear medicine. Experts say its substantial size makes more sense in the context of a weapons program. “Could the reactor Iran is constructing at Arak actually be used to produce isotopes for peaceful purposes?” former State Department non-proliferation chief Robert J. Einhorn once asked in an article. “Yes it could. A 12-inch hunting knife also could be used to spread jam on your toast in the morning.”

3. Perhaps most difficult is the question of whether Iran has actively pursued a nuclear bomb. The interim agreement “provides very little insight into the military aspects,” says Heinonen, addressing reporters in a conference call Tuesday. U.N. inspectors have found troubling evidence of an Iranian military program in the past. But prying more information out of Tehran will be extremely difficult, analysts say, given how adamantly its theocratic government has refused U.N. requests to inspect sites where they suspect research on nuclear weapons was performed, such as the Parchin military base. The matter will be taken up in the new talks. And if Iran is as determined to save face as Washington is to get to the bottom of the issue, the deadlock could come here.

How long will the negotiations toward a final agreement take? The interim pact calls for six months, but can be extended to a year, the time Araghchi and others call far more likely. But further extensions may also be possible. Critics of the Geneva talks, led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warn that the stopgap agreement may well become the permanent arrangement – one that does little to roll back Iran’s capabilities, and is, as Araghchi boasted, easily reversed.

“There’s almost a dynamic of almost endless interim deals which has been worked into the interim deal itself, which is in fact a cause for concern,” says Emily B. Landau, a non-proliferation specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “And everybody knows this comprehensive deal is going to be a 100 times more difficult to reach than the interim deal.”

Skepticism also runs deep in Congress, where majorities in both houses favor imposing tough new sanctions. Though some Senate Democrats say their support for the measure is meant to strengthen Obama’s bargaining position, and wouldn’t actually be backed by a vote unless the talks falter, it’s not at all clear that’s the signal the administration wants to send. Obama argues that punishing Iran during negotiations is irresponsible.

Yet even a former Obama adviser on Iran has suggested that more sanctions may well be inevitable. Speaking as the interim talks were getting under way, Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction during Obama’s first term, told reporters: “I fear that one of the reasons why these negotiations will not proceed to a comprehensive agreement is that the Supreme Leader may very well miscalculate and believe Iran is in a stronger position than it really is, and it may be necessary for the United States and its allies to proceed with additional sanctions before he recognizes the need to make any really significant concessions.”

Heinonen, the former IAEA deputy chief, said U.N. inspectors will move quickly after Jan. 20, and report monthly on the state of Iranian compliance with the interim agreement, which will be judged by Washington and its negotiating partners, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. But he’s among those who cannot imagine a comprehensive agreement coming in as little as six months.

“It was extremely difficult to reach this point,” he says, “and these [elements in the interim accord] were the easy questions.”