Iran-P5+1: ‘Nothing is Agreed Until Everything is Agreed’

30 May, 2014    ·   4481

Ruhee Neog draws from a recent ICG report that makes recommendations for a comprehensive agreement between the negotiating parties


Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog
The International Crisis Group’s May 2014 report, ‘Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube’, is comprehensive and detailed. It is particularly useful for Iran watchers as thus far, official accounts of the negotiations have been limited and sporadic. Until some sort of a conclusive deal is reached, official statements will continue to define the talks as ‘difficult but hopeful’, and without any understanding of the specifics. 

As the report states, the aspiration is not for the most perfect deal, but that which is most doable. It therefore helps to tether and give shape to not just what an achievable agreement ought to look like, but also how and when the three time-bound phases it has identified for the implementation of its conditions should be executed.

Acknowledging the “risks and flaws” of the negotiations process, the report considers the “alternatives…. less attractive.” This commentary analyses some of these risks.

Time is of the Essence
First, the report has laid out an approach that is to be undertaken in three phases covering nineteen years; each phase is to follow only upon the successful completion of the previous phase. Time will allow the P5+1 the luxury of testing Iran’s commitment, and the phased approach will ensure intrusive verification until such time as Iran’s inability to develop a nuclear weapon is proved beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Iran would, however, prefer a much shorter time period for the implementation of a final deal. The operative word is ‘respect’ for its rights, primarily to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and for the good faith principle on which it professes to approach the negotiations. Inran may view the approximately 20 years of restrictive uranium enrichment and intrusive verification as violating both its right, and the respect owed to it. A shorter time period would also answer Iranian concerns about the time taken to suspend, and then lift, crucial sanctions that currently restrict its economy. 

Second, unlike the interim agreement, which was concluded at breathtaking speed primarily because it focused on ‘familiar’ issues and was supplemented by back-channel Iran-US talks, the current talks for a comprehensive agreement focus on all aspects of the nuclear file and do not have a supplementary bilateral track. This could be potentially debilitating.

The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) of 20 January 2014 envisages the conclusion and implementation of the ‘final step’ within a year, i.e. 20 January 2015 (in case the six-month deadline is not met). Whether these obstacles/differences can be reconciled within this stipulated period is debatable.

Personality Matters
The report does not discuss the imminent departure of the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton in October 2014. While it is correctly assumed that the pivotal roles are played by Iran and the US, Ashton has been known to act as a personable bridge between the negotiating sides. 

Gestures and symbolism are crucial in talks as delicate and divisive as these, and Ashton’s genial relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has played a significant role in maintaining positive engagement. Additionally, her team of negotiators who have been involved in the proceedings since their inception will also leave with her, with the potential for some disconnect and/or slowing down during handover to a new team. Personality may be a peripheral matter in that it would not make or break negotiations, but its importance in sustaining past momentum can hardly be overstated. Having said that, if the deal is struck by 20 July – when the interim deal runs out – these problems may not arise.

Iran’s BMD and PMD
Iran has categorically stated that its ballistic missile programme (BMD) is not up for discussion since it constitutes a part of its conventional military programme, and therefore it may be just as well that the report does not mention it. In fact, fractures within the P5+1 itself are visible over this issue. A US official was recently reported as saying that the BMD would be dealt with within the comprehensive agreement, which was immediately countered by the Russians, who characterised it as a separate concern. It remains to be seen how these differences will be reconciled when a final deal takes shape.

The report talks about Iran’s “possible military dimensions” (PMD) in both its second and third phases, and interestingly, recalls the exact language used in the JPOA of November 2013, that is, to resolve “all past and present issues.” Given the palpable urgency for an agreement, however, the PMD issue may be side-stepped if all other conditions are fulfilled, giving primacy to the more political JPOA over the Framework for Cooperation struck between the IAEA and Iran over the technical aspects of its nuclear programme. Therefore, although the report recommends the resolution of past and present issues, to what extent is this realistically possible?

The report records that “if odds of the talks collapsing are high, the stakes of failure are higher.” This has directed what is in essence an inclusive and thoughtful blueprint for an agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, and it is hoped that the governments at the helm of the negotiations take notice.