Resolving the Remaining Issues in Iran Talks

by Adnan Tabatabai

Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council and Germany) left the negotiating table in Lausanne last week without agreeing to a path toward a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA). They are scheduled to resume their talks on March 26.

The most pressing issues remain:

  • the level to which Iran is required to reduce the capacity and output of its enrichment program;
  • limits on Iran’s research and development (R&D) activities;
  • Iran’s granted stockpile of enriched uranium;
  • the monitoring and verification measures adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran;
  • whether or not Iran’s nuclear dossier will remain in the UN Security Council or be shifted to the IAEA;
  • the possible military dimension (PMD) of past and present activities;
  • the overall mechanism and timeline to lift UN, US, and EU sanctions on Iran.

Although some of these issues can be resolved by designing legally binding arrangements, others will require the willingness of all sides to tear down the wall of mistrust and acknowledge the other side’s commitment to concluding a sustainable agreement. The deadline, originally set for March 24, has been extended to the end of the month. Negotiators have one last week to resolve these issues.

Last Window of Opportunity

While negotiations were going on in Lausanne, Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) announced that the vote on the Nuclear Agreement Review Act, aimed at introducing more sanctions on Iran, will take place on April 14. It was originally scheduled for March 24.

Although this new schedule gives the U.S. negotiating team and President Barack Obama some breathing room, Corker and Menendez surely did not mean to make life easier for their government.

Asked about the rationale behind postponing the vote, Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, clarified that “Corker’s move was a decision based on political pragmatism. He is calculating that his goodwill gesture can enable him to gain Democratic support to pass his bill after a framework is struck.”

Ayatollah Khamenei read the recently escalating divisions between Congress and government as further evidence that the US really wants a deal. In his Nowruz speech in Mashad, he attributed this factional dispute to the Republicans not wanting the Democrats to get the credit of reaching an agreement. Whether he intended it or not, Khamenei acknowledged the commitment of the US negotiators. He also stressed that these negotiations are solely about the nuclear file.

“The negotiations with America are about the nuclear program and nothing else, everyone should know this,” Khamenei clarified. “We will not negotiate with American over regional matters. The goals of the Americans on regional matters are exactly the opposite of our goals.”.

In Lausanne, the modus operandi between Iran and the US has gradually improved, as even the friendlier body language of the negotiators demonstrated. Complications in the talks came up only after yet another French intervention.

The French Position

“We are alert about concerns raised by other regional powers,” a French diplomat told LobeLog. “For the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, as well as for Israel, the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program remains an unresolved issue.” In his view, Iran has failed to clarify its past activities in this regard.

However, Iran holds it cannot prove a negative and refers to IAEA reports as well as evidence from numerous intelligence agencies that Iran has not made the decision to militarize its nuclear program.

Milad Jokar, a Paris-based Iran analyst and Huffington Post blogger, believes that the French position in the talks is “driven by short-term interests and contracts it expects from Arab allies instead of following long-term strategy with a clear and more constructive vision.”

He believes both the French aviation and automobile sectors have sustained considerable losses due to Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s reluctant policies vis-à-vis Iran. These policies have come under criticism in the French Senate as well as in the country’s business community, Jokar adds.

Additionally, and much to the dismay of Iran, the French are particularly skeptical about Iran’s R&D activities.

Limits on Iran’s R&D

“R&D is about scientific progress in our country,” an Iranian official close to the negotiating team told LobeLog. “There should be no long-lasting limits on our country’s scientific progress.”

The research component of the nuclear program enjoys particular support among the Iranian population, since it is not about sheer numbers of centrifuges or the level of enrichment but scientific prestige.

Iran’s main incentive in its R&D activities is to increase the efficiency of fuel production for its Bushehr power reactor. Iran has tested more advanced centrifuge models and installed about 1,000 of the IR-2M in its fuel plant in Natanz but agreed not to operate them under the Geneva 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).

Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told LobeLog that “the P5+1 are concerned that R&D activities without strict limitations could allow Iran to quickly move towards enrichment to weapons-grade level and critically decrease its ‘break-out’ time set to be at least 12 months.”

She added, “A second concern is that Iran could use the duration of the agreement, likely to be 10 years, to perfect and stockpile advanced machines. After a deal, it could, therefore, quickly begin enriching to higher levels.”

The mistrust surrounding Iran’s R&D plans, and its rejection of long-term restrictions on its research activities, can be settled if these limitations are softened over time.

“A possible compromise to this impasse,” Davenport says, “could be to limit testing and development of advanced centrifuge models more stringently in the early years of a deal, but then phase up to more efficient machines. Iran could continue testing some advanced machines up to a certain capacity but delay testing and development of others until the later years of an agreement.”

Monitoring by the IAEA could verify Iran’s compliance and thereby establish certain milestones.

What Must Be Achieved

Because of the mistrust on both sides, comprehensive regulations and verification measures are needed to safeguard the process. This must be achieved in a manner that maintains meaningful reciprocity between Iran and the P5+1.

Iran must prove its commitment to reducing the capacity and output of its enrichment program while increasing its transparency. Simultaneously, sanctions on Iran must be lifted and frozen foreign assets redirected to Tehran.

A lack of reciprocity throughout this process and/or imbalanced verification mechanisms could lead to complications immediately after a deal is reached.

The IAEA will closely monitor Iran’s activities. In return, the process of sanctions relief would only be tracked in similar fashion if established by a stringent UNSC resolution that comes with the CJPOA. Iranian negotiators will push for the adoption of such measures.

These verification mechanisms must be strict enough to make sure that neither side opts for non-compliance. At the same time, there must be enough flexibility to allow for an occasional hiccup and not endanger a process that will continue to be complicated, highly technical, and prone to political instrumentalization.

In the end, such flexibility requires a final ingredient: trust.

Photo: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius

Adnan Tabatabai

Adnan Tabatabai is co-founder and CEO of the Germany based think tank CARPO – Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. As an Iranian affairs analyst, he is consulted by European policy-makers and businesses, as well as by research institutions and political foundations. Tabatabai holds an assigned lectureship at the University of Dusseldorf, and is the author of the book "Morgen in Iran“ (2016, Edition Korber Stiftung). Twitter: @A_Tabatabai



  1. All things considered, what about the issue of Israel spying on the U.S. negotiators then feeding info to the Repuglicons in congress? Or that Lieberman/Israeli-saying they got it from another member in the talks. Could that be the French? Would seem that’s the case perhaps, after reading this post.

  2. The USA can’t maintain sanctions without European co-operation, therefore, Obama has got to make a deal, or Europe is going to make a deal. People are not psycho, people know that invading and occupying Iran is completely completely wrong, in view of the comparatively small disaster in Iraq.

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