Skepticism remains as P5+1 powers extend deadline for Iran nuclear talks

Click photo to download. Caption: The Iran nuclear program's heavy water reactor at Arak. Credit: Nanking2012 via Wikimedia Commons.

By Dmitriy Shapiro/JNS.org/Washington Jewish Week

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. The extension, however, ignited a fresh round of skepticism about the prospects for the negotiations.

“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,” Michael Adler, public policy scholar with the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told JNS.org. “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.”

Earlier this year, the group of six countries—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany—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 called 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 U.S. promised to free $2.8 billion in restricted Iranian assets from international oil revenue, and set a new Nov. 24 deadline for a final agreement. 

“I hope that the next four months will lead to a constructive termination of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but remain concerned that the time will be used by Iran to thwart sanctions and further its efforts towards a nuclear capability,” said U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

A day before the extension was reached, House Speaker U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) spent a large part of his opening remarks at his weekly press briefing on July 17 criticizing negotiations with Iran, including the prospect of working with Iran to bring an end to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) 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.”

In a background call with reporters the day the extension was announced, senior Obama administration officials said the extra four months would mean that Iran would not be able to stonewall the negotiations to maintain its nuclear development at the current level.

“Nov. 24 has a clear logic in that the [interim] 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 the progress she has seen so far warrants an extension, and that there may be a good chance the talks 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,” Slavin told JNS.org. “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 U.S. 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 and five years, while the U.S. was pushing for 15-20 years. So far, the bargaining appears to have moved the two sides closer, with America apparently willing to settle for 10 years and Iran arguing for seven years.

“You know, in 10 years, a lot can happen,” Slavin said. “If they decide on 10 years, the current supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), who is 75 years old, may not be with us anymore. 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.”

The Wilson Center’s Adler was more pessimistic about the efficacy of the four-month extension,  noting the statements 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, Khamenei said that Iran’s 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 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 a quicker process than the U.S. predicts.

“Fortunately, a bad deal was not signed last week with Iran,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer told the Christians United for Israel summit Monday. “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. We hope the international community will stand firm and not agree to any deal where Iran does not fully dismantle its nuclear weapons capability.”

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Posted on July 22, 2014 and filed under World, U.S., News.