Iran Nuclear Talks: Clearing the Final Hurdles

June 24, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IranU.S.Nuclear Deal

Iran Nuclear Talks: Clearing the Final Hurdles

"Standing in the way of victory are two key issues, both of which are resolvable."


As officials from Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) negotiate around the clock in Vienna, the self-imposed June 30 deadline steadily approaches to seal a comprehensive nuclear deal. The Obama and Rouhani administrations should be commended: The amount of progress made in the past eighteen months is greater than the preceding decade combined. The two sides are now on the cusp of a historic deal that will be one of the greatest foreign policy achievements in recent memory.

Standing in the way of victory are two key issues, both of which are resolvable: Sanctions relief, and inspections and verification.


Finding the right formula for sanctions relief will likely be the most challenging issue in Vienna. If Washington offers sanctions relief that does not provide practical value for Tehran, it will correspondingly diminish the practical value for Iranian decision-makers to uphold their end of the bargain. Iran gave more than it received in the interim nuclear deal, and is looking to collect on that investment. The P5+1 believes it must maintain the architecture of sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance. Splitting the difference will require compromise on two fronts: Multilateral sanctions and unilateral sanctions.

Multilateral sanctions written into United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions target not only Iran’s nuclear program, but also issues such as arms procurement and export, human rights, and terrorism. One potential way forward is terminating UNSC sanctions in their current form, and introducing a new UNSC resolution that codifies a final nuclear deal. Re-writing previous resolutions will enable the two sides to split the difference: Iran gets nuclear-related sanctions removed and a clean procurement channel for its verifiably peaceful nuclear program, while the P5+1 maintains its sanctions on other aforementioned contentious issues.

Unilateral American sanctions cannot be terminated without an act of Congress, and even Iranian decision-makers concede that simply will not happen in the first phase of a deal. To demonstrate American credibility and make this complicated reality politically digestible in Tehran, Washington should frontload sanctions relief by using President Obama’s unique legal authorities that require no advance approval from Congress: 1) Unblock frozen Iranian assets and protect their full return to Iran under the Algiers Accord; 2) Use waivers to suspend existing sanctions; 3) Use licensing authorities to process mutually agreed upon transactions currently prohibited under U.S. law; 4) Remove select Iranian individuals and entities from OFAC’s SDN list.

The cumulative effect of this multilateral and unilateral sanctions relief will be two-fold: Removing obstacles that prevent foreign companies from doing business with Iran, and beginning the Islamic Republic’s reintegration into the global economic system. To hedge their bets, P5+1 officials have said that viable “snapback” mechanisms are available to counter major violations of Iranian commitments – including options that do not emasculate Russia and China’s UNSC veto power. The final step is securing a framework with clear procedures that both the P5+1 and Iran can live with.

Finding a win-win formula for inspections and verification of Iran’s nuclear program—past and present—will be no less difficult. Tehran has long claimed that its program has always been entirely peaceful. Washington respectfully disagrees. As one U.S. official recently told me, “The IAEA is asking for access to specific sites and individuals because our intelligence told them where to look. We already know what Iran did prior to 2003. And Iran knows that we know.”

Tehran’s objections, however, are not just based on principle and sovereignty. After years of cyber warfare and secret assassinations, Iran is understandably reluctant to allow inspections of its military sites and access to its nuclear scientists. Publicly, some Iranian officials have said that military sites and top officials are off limits.  Privately, key decision-makers in Tehran acknowledge that the question is not whether such inspections and access will be granted under the terms of a comprehensive nuclear deal, but rather the scale and depth that both sides can live with.

The P5+1 wants Iran to provide a level of access to the IAEA that will allow the agency to check off a list of items to investigate and individuals to question. In their view, this inevitably involves military sites, but not “anytime, anywhere” access. “We need to be able to see what we need to see, when we need to see it,” one Western official told me. Iran does not necessarily oppose this principle, but the two sides need to find a mechanism for doing so. One potential way forward is the establishment of a dispute resolution joint commission, similar to what was enshrined in the interim nuclear deal.

Setting up such a commission can also help resolve a related point of contention: Cooperation with the IAEA regarding Iran's past nuclear activities—particularly possible military dimensions (PMD) prior to 2003. This is no doubt an important issue, but it is equally important to avoid making mountains out of molehills.

No amount of scrubbing sites or shifting soil can remove criminalizing traces of radiation, so the question is not if Iran answers PMD questions, but rather how. A potential win-win solution could be that Iran’s nuclear past is indemnified in return for agreeing to measures that ensures it cannot recommit these transgressions in the future. It will be easier for Iran to provide access to the scientists and sites that inspectors desire if its leaders know that they will not be penalized for doing so.

Washington and Tehran should accept this paradigm because focusing on a future that verifiably ensures the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program is more important than shaming the Islamic Republic for activities it ceased over a decade ago. Consider the alternative: without a comprehensive deal, the best-case scenario is Iran-IAEA cooperation will be reduced to pre-Rouhani levels. The worst-case scenario: Iran-IAEA cooperation is dead. Tehran’s nuclear program is currently the most heavily monitored in the world, but that will not remain the case without a comprehensive deal. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest.

Looking ahead, sequencing will be critical on each of the aforementioned issues. A step-by-step process based on reciprocity should be established after the core solutions to sanctions relief and inspections are ironed out. To that end, one major policy shift that has allowed negotiations to succeed thus far is both sides agreeing to seek win-win solutions. In other words, each issue in a comprehensive nuclear deal must be viewed as a win by American and Iranian decision-makers. The days of zero-sum fallacies are over. Officials from both sides acknowledge that implementing the interim deal was difficult, but win-win coordination at multiple levels helped ensure its stability and success. A heavier dose of the same premise will be the glue that holds a final nuclear deal together.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council. He tweets at: @rezamarashi.

Image: United States Mission Geneva