Shortly before their July 20 deadline, negotiators taking part in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran agreed to extend the deadline for another four months after what the parties described as tangible successes.
Earlier this year, the group of six countries: the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – with Germany added – agreed on a plan outlining specific steps Iran must take under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). The JPOA was intended as a road map to a comprehensive agreement aimed at containing Iran’s military nuclear aspirations.
Although Secretary of State John Kerry conceded that there are still many significant “gaps” between the parties that prevented a final deal by the deadline, Kerry expressed optimism when he announced the extension in a July 18 press release, calling the negotiations so far a “clear success.”
“Since [the JPOA’s] implementation, Iran has complied with its obligations to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium; cap its stockpile of 5 percent enriched uranium; not install advanced centrifuges; not install or test new components at its Arak reactor; and submit to far more frequent inspections of its facilities,” Kerry said. “The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has regularly verified that Iran has lived up to these commitments.”
As part of the extension, the United States promised to free $2.8 billion in restricted Iranian assets from international oil revenue and set a new deadline for Nov. 24.
In a background call with reporters the day the agreement was announced, senior administration officials said that the four-month extension would mean that Iran would not be able to stonewall the negotiations to maintain their nuclear development at the current level.
“Nov. 24 has a clear logic in that the agreement that was reached on Nov. 24 of last year specifically indicated a goal of one year to achieve a comprehensive resolution,” said a senior administration official. “So it was not an arbitrary date; it was one that was embedded in the initial agreement. The point there being that we are not simply re-upping a six-month agreement of the Joint Plan of Action as a new normal, a new status quo. We are, rather, extending, within a natural deadline, the benefits of the Joint Plan of Action so as to give the negotiations time to conclude.”
Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, said she believes that the progress she’s seen so far warrants an extension, and that there may be a good chance that it will produce a permanent agreement.
“I think there is reasonable optimism that they will actually be able to reach a deal, but there are some hard decisions that are going to have to be made in both Tehran and Washington,” said Slavin. “They made a lot of progress, but they didn’t cross the finish line. So that was why a decision was made to extend for four months.”
Slavin pointed out that two major sticking points for the negotiations remain. First, there is Iran’s enrichment capacity. While Iran has promised not to enrich uranium beyond a low level, the United States and its negotiating partners are insisting that Iran reduce the number of centrifuges below the 10,000 first generation machines it is currently operating.
The second sticking point is the length of time Iran must abide by restrictions on its enrichment capacity and other civilian nuclear activities.
Iranian negotiators originally insisted on between three to five years, while the United States was pushing for 15-20 years. So far, the bargaining appears to have moved the two sides closer – with the United States apparently willing to settle for 10 years and Iran arguing for seven years.
“I think they’re getting closer on centrifuges and they’re getting closer on the duration of the agreement,” said Slavin, who believes the parties might compromise on a 10-year deal and find other ways to reduce the output of Iran’s centrifuges.
“You know, in 10 years, a lot can happen. If they decide on 10 years, the current supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], who is 75 years old may not be with us anymore,” said Slavin. “There will be other developments, changes in the region that could affect Iranian policy and it would give the United States and Iran 10 years to get to know each other better again and perhaps reduce tensions on some other issues, including Israel, support for Palestinian groups and so on.”
Michael Adler, public policy scholar with the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was more pessimistic about the efficacy of the four-month extension.
“It’s kind of naive to think they’ll have an agreement, when the sustained way in which Iran is going about building its nuclear program hasn’t changed at all,” said Adler. “Right now, I feel that there has been a failure to change the nature of the dialogue on the activity that Iran is conducting. Until that takes place, there can’t be an agreement.
“The Iranians would like to see the interim agreement become the new framework, but the interim agreement was never designed to do that,” he said.
Adler mentions specifically the conversations by Iranian officials, who routinely publicly contradict the concessions that U.S. officials say Iran agreed to.
In an address to senior Iranian officials Monday, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Supreme Leader Khamenei said that Iranian negotiators should not allow themselves to get locked in by the West on the maximum number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to build and operate, according to The Guardian.
“On the issue of enrichment capacity, [the West’s] aim is make Iran accept 10,000 [centrifuges],” said Khamenei. “Our officials say we need 190,000. We might not need this [capacity] this year or in the next two or five years but this is our absolute need and we need to meet this need.”
Meanwhile, Israel – which has been excluded from the talks – has consistently taken a firm stance against any final agreement that allows Iran to continue enriching uranium even if it is for a civilian energy program. Israeli officials cite Iran’s record of hiding and lying about its program to international observers as a sign it cannot be trusted, saying that if Iran is allowed to keep its nuclear program, converting it to military use if talks breaks down will be quicker than the United States predicts.
“Fortunately, a bad deal was not signed last week with Iran. A bad deal is a deal that would leave Iran with its nuclear weapons capability essentially intact. That is a deal that would have been unacceptable to Israel,” said Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, while addressing supporters at the Christians United for Israel annual conference Monday. “We hope the international community will stand firm and not agree to any deal where Iran does not fully dismantle its nuclear weapons capability. With the right mix of military pressures, tough sanctions, and clear-eyed diplomacy, Iran can be forced to fully dismantle its nuclear weapons capability. And as always, Israel deserves the right to defend itself.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) spent a large part of his opening remarks at his weekly press briefing on Thursday of last week criticizing negotiations with Iran, including the prospect of working with Iran to bring an end to the Islamic Caliphate of the Levant (ICI) terrorist organization that has taken control of large parts of Iraq and Syria.
“The Obama administration is pursuing nuclear negotiations with Iran, and there are some who believe that the administration should engage the Iranians to help deal with the situation in Iraq,” Boehner said. “In light of that, let me restate this: Israel is our friend and Israel’s enemies are our enemies.”
“While it will be in Iran’s best interest to have a weak or divided Iraq, it’s not in the United States best interest. Our interests are not Iran’s,” he said.
Boehner said he believes a clear and unified message should be sent about United States’ friendship with Israel and congressional support for Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. Boehner pointed to Iran’s support of Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip to justify his opposition to any cooperation.
“The Israelis recently intercepted Iranian-supplied weapons headed for Gaza. It’s part of Iran’s long history of providing rockets, and rocket parts, to Gaza-based terrorist organizations, as well as Hezbollah, which operates in Lebanon and in Syria,” Boehner said. “Those weapons were used to attack Israel. The Republicans remain focused on pushing the White House to do more to counter Iran’s support for terrorists, in efforts to destabilize a key U.S. ally in the region.”
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JNS.org contributed to this story.