A Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement with Iran: Four Potential Roadblocks

24 Apr, 2014    ·   4409

Ruhee Neog says that the momentum for a comprehensive agreement will continue despite obvious differences

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog

The Joint Statement released by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after the latest round of nuclear talks towards a possible comprehensive agreement states that “A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process.” This suggests that not much headway has been made in terms of compromises, especially keeping in mind that the six-month interim nuclear deal has a self-imposed deadline of 20 July for the lifting of sanctions and implementation of a comprehensive agreement.

What are some of the issues that are likely to pose a problem in the run-up to a comprehensive agreement?

First, the remarkable pace at which the negotiations have taken place since November 2013, owing to changed circumstances, is praiseworthy. Both sides have also maintained that they would not let non-nuclear tensions between Iran and the West disrupt the process. However, US’ very clear opposition to Iran’s chosen envoy to the UN, Hamid Aboutalebi, who was allegedly involved in the 1979 hostage crisis, has led to many ruffled feathers. The US has refused to grant Aboutalebi a visa, and Iran understandably is refusing to pick a replacement and has instead stated that it will seek legal recourse through the UN. This leads to two questions: how will Rouhani’s government seek to placate domestic audiences, given that the US stand has elicited strong anti-US sentiment within the country? Complicating this scenario is the presence of differing views on Iranian engagement with the West by Iranian opinion-makers, and the US refusal to grant entry to Aboutalebi will only embolden the hard-liner stand. To what extent will both the P5+1 and Iran be able to keep the negotiations on a separate track that is immune to disruptions from the outside?

Second, the next meeting is slated for 13 May and this is when the drafting of the agreement is expected to begin. Given the importance of the text of a legal document, this tricky process may be even harder to negotiate than the preliminary talks.

Third, nuclear negotiations with Iran have thus far taken place on two different tracks. One of these was with the P5+1 that resulted in the six-month Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) that concludes on 20 July - this is essentially a political agreement. The Framework Agreement struck between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) looks to the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. In this regard, there has been some debate about a possible conflict of interest between the two tracks. In 2011, IAEA Director General Yukiyo Amano submitted an exhaustive report to the Board of Governors on Iran’s ‘possible military dimensions’ (PMD). The report was apparently based on numerous reliable sources as well as IAEA’s own independent investigation, and it claimed that Iran had in the past pursued activities related to the development of a nuclear weapon. The IAEA would therefore naturally seek answers to these allegations from Iran. However, it has been alleged that in the enthusiasm for a comprehensive agreement, the P5+1 could ignore the PMD aspect if all other conditions are met. It could stand to reason that if Iran’s break-out capability is indefinitely delayed and the technology available to it is severely limited, in addition to greater transparency and IAEA access to its facilities, the PMD question may not have to be directly dealt with at all. In addition, even if the P5+1 agree to discuss theissue, Iran is unlikely to admit to any such activity in the fear of a backlash, and due to its fatwa against nuclear weapons.

Fourth, there maybe differences between Iran and the P5+1 over which sanctions will be lifted when - in what has been envisaged as a phased approach. For this particular scenario, it has been established that sanctions have been very persuasive in bringing Iran to the negotiating table after decades of international isolation. They are currently the West’s most effective bargaining chip in eliciting nuclear concessions from Iran, and therefore the manner and order in which they will be lifted is crucial. 

If issues such as these, which admittedly seem to be of an intractable nature, continue to persist, a comprehensive agreement by July seems elusive. Talks could extend by a further six months, but given the sincerity with which both sides are pursuing the negotiations, the momentum will most likely continue despite differences.