Nearly two weeks after their original self-imposed deadline, negotiators from Iran and six major world powers are reportedly close to a deal over the country’s nuclear program and could announce a conclusion as soon as Monday. Both sides are careful to note that there are still significant issues to be worked out, but sources sound guardedly optimistic, and, in a promising sign, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, who had left the talks, are returning.
Since a framework agreement was announced last April, several significant disputes have prevented a final deal. Here are the issues to watch in the hours to come and after the deal is announced, when the spin begins.
The pace of sanctions relief: This has been the big one. Almost as soon as the framework agreement was signed, Tehran and Washington were squabbling over whether it implied that sanctions on Iran would be lifted immediately upon signing, or over time as Iran was found to be in compliance. Congress, which will have the right to review any agreement, will insist on the latter, while Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has insisted on the former. Both sides have dug in pretty deep on this question. A final agreement will likely depend on the negotiators finding language about sanctions relief that sounds gradual to Americans and immediate to Iranians. If a deal is really within sight, the negotiators may have found a way to thread that needle.
How much sanctions relief: While most Iranians believe that all sanctions on their country will be lifted, the White House has insisted that the deal will apply only to those related to its nuclear program, which would exclude sanctions related to Tehran’s human rights record or support for international terrorism. In recent days, Iran has also insisted on the relief of sanctions related to its ballistic missile program, though the other governments say these are unrelated and shouldn’t be part of the deal. Russia and China have also been reluctant to create a mechanism for U.N.–imposed sanctions to be “snapped back” if Iran is found to be in violation of the deal, though that issue has apparently been resolved.
Iran’s past military activities: Secretary of State John Kerry came under heavy criticism last month for suggesting that the U.S. wasn’t all that interested in pressuring Iran to disclose past research on nuclear weapons, and the U.S. position is now that Iran must disclose these activities as part of the deal. The Iranians, who insist their nuclear program has always been peaceful, have bristled at this.
Inspections: The White House interpretation of the framework agreement insisted that it allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors regular access to Iranian nuclear sites, but Khamenei has since suggested that this is unacceptable.
At times, these differences had seemed unbridgeable, but thanks in large part to the U.S. and Iranian administration’s dogged refusal to leave the table, talks have continued. And the latest indications suggest the two sides are getting close to being satisfied. Selling it to the hawks in both Washington and Tehran will be another challenge entirely.