While the P5+1 negotiate with Iran this week and implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, which provides for intrusive monitoring and inspection of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for a small amount of sanctions relief, goes smoothly, a wide gap remains to be bridged.
The United States and its international partners in the P5+1 (China, Russia, France, United Kingdom and Germany) sat down with Iran this week to begin to lay out the details of a final deal. So far, implementation of the November 24 Joint Plan of Action, which provides for intrusive monitoring and inspection of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for a small amount of sanctions relief, has gone smoothly, and both sides will aim to keep it that way. But there is a wide gap to bridge. Onlookers should not be surprised to see little movement in this first meeting and should even be prepared for a possible extension of the six-month timeline set out in the initial agreement. Initial progress, however, suggests some reason for optimism on what analysts see as the most likely path for a final deal.
While there is some room to negotiate, a final agreement will seek to ensure that any scenario in which Iran should choose to reverse its path would allow the international community sufficient time for action, including military force. Former US nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn suggested in October that a final deal must "sufficiently limit" Iran's ability "to suddenly abandon constraints, kick out inspectors, disable monitoring equipment and use existing enrichment facilities to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more nuclear weapons - and to do these things before the international community can take effective action to stop them."
While, ideally for the P5+1, Iran would not be allowed to continue to enrich uranium, the issue has been firmly established as an Iranian red line. After years of investment in the program, the country is unlikely to trade this ability away. For this reason, the United States and its partners will seek to limit the number of Iran's first-generation centrifuges to a few thousand, rather than the 19,000 currently installed, cap its current stockpile and close or significantly convert its Fordow enrichment facility, which is buried deep underground. The six world powers also will seek to deal with Iran's heavy water enrichment facility at Arak - which could be used to pursue a second plutonium path to a bomb - by converting or closing it down. While Fordow is likely to pose a continued proliferation risk if a significant number of centrifuges remain, the Arak reactor potentially could be converted to a light-water facility or have its power reduced to limit the quality and amount of plutonium that can be produced. Most importantly, a final deal will provide for the kind of intrusive inspections regime that will ensure any Iranian attempt to build a nuclear weapon is detected well in advance of its realization.
In exchange for these concessions, Iran will be offered significant sanctions relief, particularly in the oil and financial sectors that have had the most impact on the country's economy. This is likely to be a gradual process contingent upon Iran's continued cooperation. As sanctions are removed, Iran's economy will begin to recover, but only as long as the country complies with its obligations. Were Iran to fail to deliver on any of its promises, Congress lies in wait, ready to reverse any sanctions relief and impose its most crippling legislation to date.
While this threat remains, however, most members of Congress agree that now is not the time to impose additional sanctions, and they have begun to weigh in heavily on the issue, feeling that the administration should be given the time to negotiate a final deal. On February 12, more than 100 members of the House of Representatives sent a bipartisan letter to the president stating that "a bill or resolution that risks fracturing our international coalition or, worse yet, undermining our credibility in future negotiations and jeopardizing hard-won progress toward a verifiable final agreement, must be avoided."This is in stark contrast to the widespread viewpoint just months ago, which favored a piling on of additional sanctions meant to force Iran to its knees.
Ultimately, no solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will be perfect. If a successful agreement is reached, the US will not achieve all of its aims, and Iran will give much more than it would like. That is the nature of a compromise. But regardless of whether Iran walks away with 1,000 centrifuges or 4,000 centrifuges, a successful deal is one that ensures that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon without ample warning to the international community. While we cannot guarantee success at this point, we can guarantee that as long as the diplomatic process is allowed to continue, Iran's nuclear program will not be allowed to progress, bringing us one step closer to eliminating the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. And that is far more than the United States could have hoped for just a short time ago.