War Stories

Getting to Maybe

What are the differences that have Western and Iranian nuclear negotiators staying up all night?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) wait with others for a meeting at the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel on March 28, 2015, in Lausanne, Switzerland
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) wait with others for a meeting at the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel on March 28, 2015, in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

At the stroke of midnight in Switzerland, the diplomats at the Iran nuclear talks went passed their self-imposed March 31 deadline without formally setting a “framework” for going forward. So does that mean diplomacy has run its course, the negotiations should fold, and the confrontation with Tehran should proceed solely in the realm of threats, force, and showdowns?

No, no, and no—though there’s now a bit more cause for doubt that this remarkable venture in statecraft will bear fruit. If the odds of an accord were 50-50 before (and President Obama has never put them any higher than that), they’re now more like 40-60.

First, it’s worth noting, there never was a March 31 deadline. There was an interim deal, signed in November 2013, by Iran and the P5+1 nations (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany). In November 2014, there was an extension of that arrangement, which carried an expiration date of June 2015, three months from now.

Since the extension, the Western nations declared that, at the end of March, they would gauge whether enough progress had been made to justify further negotiating. If they didn’t think so, the talks would end and the economic sanctions against Iran would be continued or intensified.

On Tuesday, a few hours before midnight, a State Department spokeswoman announced that, indeed, enough progress had been made to continue talking at least a while longer.

But is that sufficient? In mid-March, a “senior American official” told reporters that the “framework” set by the end of the month would have to be more than a political declaration of intentions; it would have to contain a “quantifiable dimension.”

The word “quantifiable” leaves a lot of room for maneuvering. Does it mean the framework has to specify numbers (how many centrifuges the Iranians are allowed to keep spinning, how many they have to dismantle before the sanctions are lifted, etc.), or does it mean that it only has to spell out vague principles, to be filled in with numbers by late June (“quantifiable” not being synonymous with “quantified”)?

In any case, actual, declared administration policy has never said anything about a “quantifiable dimension.” Rather, it has described a “framework” as a sort of political road map, a statement of principles, to be hammered into specific terms and quantities in the final deal, to be wrapped up by the end of June. Again, there’s a lot of room to maneuver.

But aside from obligations and semantics, where do the talks stand? What differences remain unresolved, and how important are they? Does the impending deal—if there is one—look good or bad?

According to reports coming out of the talks, there appear to be three main disputes: the timing of the suspension (or outright lifting) of the sanctions; the extent to which Iran can develop and install new types of centrifuges, which can enrich uranium much more quickly; and whether international inspectors can gain access to Iranian military facilities.

These issues are all important, even crucial. To my mind (and I’ve supported these talks), if these differences can’t be resolved satisfactorily, there’s not a deal here worth taking.

As last reported, Iran wants all sanctions to be lifted as soon as, or very soon after, the deal is signed in June. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov takes the same position. However, the United States, France, and Germany are adamant that the sanctions be lifted gradually, at roughly the same pace that Iran dismantles whatever the deal requires it to dismantle. If the P5+1 nations lift their sanctions right away, Iran could drag out its side of the bargain, even backpedalling or ultimately cheating on the deal—and it would be very hard for the West to reimpose those sanctions once they’ve been lifted.

In short, if the Iranians stick to this position, the deal is a no-go.

The question of centrifuges is more complex. The new, advanced types can enrich uranium much more quickly than the traditional model. If the deal allows the Iranians to continue procuring and installing the new types, it would also have to require them to retire the old types at a much faster rate—and not just to put them away in a warehouse, but to destroy them.

Otherwise, again, the deal is a no-go.

The provisions for inspection are also hard to assess without first learning what they are. The point of inspections is to verify that the deal’s signatories are complying with the deal—or, in this case, to ensure the Iranians aren’t cheating. Most arms accords of this sort allow inspections of “known” or “declared” sites (in this case, sites identified as nuclear facilities), but this excludes the unknown or undeclared ones, and the problem is that, in the past, Iran has done work at covert nuclear sites, even though the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which Iran has signed) required them to specify all such sites. (These covert sites were later discovered by outsiders; their existence was not revealed by Iran.)

One problem here is that, regardless of how many inspectors sweep through how many sites with how little notice, there is no such thing as a 100 percent verifiable treaty. The nuclear arms treaties with Russia (and, in Cold War days, the Soviet Union) spoke of inspections that would make the treaty “adequately verifiable.” This has always been a contentious term, whatever the context, and it’s particularly sensitive here. In any case, the framework will probably not contain much detail on this point; even assuming honest intentions on all sides (and that can’t be assumed), this will be one of the hardest issues to resolve in the drafting of the actual deal. We’ll just have to wait to read it. (This might be a good lesson, in general, for Republican senators and Israeli prime ministers: refrain from denouncing a deal until you know what it says.)

Finally, there is one grand uncertainty, and even the Iranian negotiators might be a little bit in the dark on this one: the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is not called the supreme leader of Iran out of politeness; the designation is literal. He has given President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif a great deal of latitude in getting these talks under way and extending them this far, but it’s widely assumed that they lack the authority to sign off on a deal without his explicit approval. Where he stands, no outsider knows. He says he would like to see a deal; he says he would like to see Iran enter the global economy. But he has also said he’d like to see Iran install several thousand more centrifuges; he continues to spout anti-American slogans; and he must know that, if a deal is reached, it would be hard to continue spouting those slogans—doing so would strain the credulity of his followers—and, if the slogans lose their potency, his regime would no longer have much rationale for continuing its repressive policies. There is the danger (as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev realized too late) that excessive détente with the West can trigger slow-motion regime change.

It comes down to intentions. If the Iranians demand instant relief from sanctions, if they insist on a one-for-one substitution of advanced centrifuges for the standard models, and if they refuse to allow inspections of any “suspect” site (a facility for which the International Atomic Energy Agency can provide some evidence for suspicion that something untoward might be going on inside), then it’s worth doubting whether their motive for having a nuclear program is really as peaceful as they claim.

Meanwhile, if there’s the possibility of a deal, and if the Iranians continue to freeze their nuclear program during the course of its pursuit, then what’s wrong with waiting a few months longer to see how it all works out? Given the stakes, it would be stupid not to.