The P5+1-Iran Interim Deal: Let the Haggling Begin

The brakes have been put on Iran's nuclear program, but the war of interpretations has only just started.

Emily B. Landau
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When assessed in light of the stated goal of the Obama administration, the interim nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran more or less fits the bill. Obama said that he wants to be certain that while the P5+1 are talking to the Iranians, the Iranians are not busy advancing their program. With this deal some clear brakes on Iran’s nuclear program have indeed been put in place.

But that’s not the focus of concern with this deal. The potential problems are much more about what is likely to happen in the coming months. Unfortunately the new understanding is probably not going to pave the way in a neat and orderly fashion to the next task at hand: Negotiation of a comprehensive deal. The Iranians are unlikely to simply accept the terms of the deal at face value; instead, they can be expected to challenge what was agreed and continue to haggle over the terms, including accusations of lack of respect or of good faith, or both, while also pressing the P5+1 to agree to further sanctions relief.

One problem that has been a constant hindrance to more effective negotiations with Iran from the start is that crucial issues regarding its nuclear program have often critically hinged on interpretation. The NPT itself unfortunately opens the door to competing interpretations. For example, the question of whether non-nuclear weapons states who are parties to the treaty – like Iran – have the right to enrich uranium. Iran says ‘yes’ because it has an inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear program. The U.S. says ‘no’ because a peaceful nuclear program can be attained without enriching uranium indigenously. Moreover, the full text of the relevant clause in the NPT states clearly that the right to a peaceful program is conditional on not advancing a military nuclear capability.

But this raises another issue fraught with interpretation complexities: Is Iran advancing a military program? The international community says ‘yes’ and has ample evidence to back it up, but Iran says ‘sorry, it’s all a fabrication’. Because the program is based on dual-use technology and Iran has advanced the military aspects of its program in secret, it has been hard to present the evidence, especially when military facilities like Parchin are off-limits to IAEA inspectors. Unfortunately, the NPT did not establish clear benchmarks for making this call, which has undercut the ability of the international community to present a unified and determined stance.

The interim deal is more than likely to be plagued by this recurring dynamic. Already there are two texts of the agreement that have been made public: One released by the White House and one by the Iranian foreign ministry. And they are not identical. This is an early harbinger of problems to come.

Iran continues to play a tactical game. As long as it has not made a decision to reverse course in the nuclear realm and abandon its military aspirations, its strategy is still to get maximum sanctions relief for the absolute minimum nuclear concessions. The only truly revolutionary change that became apparent in the past months is that for the first time in over a decade Iran is at the table actually looking for a deal. It cannot get the sanctions relief it desperately needs without cooperating with the international community. This should drive home to the P5+1 that this leverage is the most precious asset they have, and it cannot be given up for less than a truly comprehensive deal.

Turning to Israel, many accuse Netanyahu of being cross and contrary; not willing to join the celebrations. But questions should also be directed to the international negotiators: Why are they not voicing similar concerns as Netanyahu on the technical questions? Netanyahu’s positions on these issues are actually in line with the long-held positions of the international community – even codified in a string of UN Security Council resolutions. So an equally valid question is why the negotiators have softened their tone and demands, and are not voicing more concerns of their own?

And finally, returning to the thorny issue of interpretation, it is anything but clear what the criteria are for deeming the next six months a success or failure. Success would presumably be a comprehensive deal, but is everyone on the same page as to what that means? There’s currently no answer on this. Defining failure is even harder. At what point would this process be deemed a failure? Indeed, is there any development that would bring the parties to proclaim ‘that’s it, diplomacy has failed’? And what would be done if it was? Regarding the very time frame – we’ve been hearing ‘six months’ for the comprehensive deal up until recently – it could be prolonged. The interim deal mentions this and the British foreign minister tellingly said that he hoped a deal could be secured ‘within a year’. It’s going to be a long hard ride.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).  

Iranian foreign minister (left) and U.S. secretary of state (right) at UN conference. Nov. 24, 2013.Credit: AP