Intensive negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – have been underway in Vienna for nearly two weeks. The goal is to replace the temporary Geneva Accord between the two sides that went into effect on January 20 with a long-term agreement by July 20. On Sunday Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied with his British, French, and German counterparts, joined the negotiations with Iran, led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. After two days of what Kerry called “very tough negotiations” both sides spoke about extending the deadline for several weeks or months. Zarif declared, “My team's inclination is that more time may help to reach creative solutions. I have seen the readiness in the opposite side to listen. That's why this will open the path for a solution.” Earlier, Kerry had stated that “tangible progress” had been made, but that “very real gaps” have also remained.
What are the most contentious issues at stake? The United States and its three Western European (EU3) allies have four fundamental concerns. The first and thorniest involves the number of centrifuges that Iran can keep over the lifetime of the agreement to produce fuel for its nuclear reactors. Initially the U.S. and its EU3 allies were insisting that Iran should have only a token number of centrifuges, as low as a few hundred according to the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Iran had countered that it will need up to 100,000 centrifuges.
Then, in a surprising speech on July 7 Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran needing up to 190,000 separative working units (SWU) for enrichment, which was erroneously interpreted by many in the West as meaning that Iran would require that many centrifuges. The SWU defines the enrichment efficiency of a centrifuge. Thus, for example, if all the centrifuges have a SWU of 5, then that implies 190,000/5= 38,000 centrifuges. There were even speculations that Iran’s negotiation team was shocked by Khamenei’s speech, although that does not seem likely, as Zarif always attends the negotiations with strict and advanced instructions by Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. In the latest development, Iran has proposed to freeze the number of its centrifuges for the duration of the agreement at the current level, which according to the International Atomic Energy Agency is around 22,000, with close to 10,000 of them currently working. American officials have been mentioning a number between 3000 and 6000 centrifuges. So a significant gap still remains.
The second issue is Iran’s IR-40 heavy water research reactor, currently under construction in Arak, southwest of Tehran, which will replace the aging Tehran Research Reactor. In its current design, the reactor will produce plutonium that can be used for bomb making. Iran has proposed to change the design so that the reactor will produce much less plutonium. This appears to have resolved the issue.
The Fordow uranium enrichment facility, built under a mountain near Qom, is the third major point of contention. It houses close to 3,000 centrifuges, although only about one-third are working. Since it cannot be destroyed by bombing, the U.S. and the EU3 want Iran to close the facility, a red line for Khamenei as the facility has been turned into a “sacred” site. It now appears that there is tentative agreement to convert the facility into a research center with the centrifuges uninstalled and stored.
The fourth issue is Iran’s past nuclear activities, particularly between 1983, when Iran restarted its nuclear program, and 2003, when the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, reaffirmed in 2011 and 2012, believes Iran stopped its military nuclear research and activities, although no evidence for such activities have ever been revealed to the public. The Parchin facility, 40 km southeast of Tehran, where Iran has been producing ammunitions and explosives for its military for decades, has been a subject of much speculation. In its controversial November 2011 report, the IAEA alleged that Iran might have carried out experiments with high conventional explosives at Parchin before 2003, which are essential to triggering a nuclear reaction. Iran has rejected the allegations, pointing to two visits to the facility by the IAEA in January and November of 2005 that found no evidence in support of the allegation.
From Iran’s perspective, two issues remain important, in addition to the centrifuges. One is the duration of the agreement, after which Iran will be able to expand its uranium enrichment program freely, so long as it abides by its obligations. Zarif has mentioned a period of three to seven years, but the U.S. and its EU3 allies are pushing for 10 years or longer. Iran also seeks complete relief from the debilitating economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies. That is also a difficult issue for the Obama administration, as Congress and the Israel lobby have taken very tough positions regarding the sanctions, most of which cannot be permanently lifted, unless approved by Congress.
Both the Obama administration and Khamenei need the agreement. With the Middle East on fire and crisis festering in Ukraine, President Obama needs a major foreign policy success. Khamenei recognizes that his hardline supporters have been cornered by the track record of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he himself helped to bring to power and strongly supported for at least six years. Vast corruption, a terrible economy, and the extreme political repression imposed on the nation as a result of the Green Movement of 2009-2010, have created an explosive situation. So Khamenei also needs a nuclear agreement.
But, Khamenei has made statements, such as his recent speech, that hardliners in both Tehran and Washington hardliners have interpreted as evidence that he is not interested in a compromise. Given that the negotiations would not have advanced as far as they have without Khamenei’s support, why would the Supreme Leader make such statements? The reason is twofold.
One is that Iran’s hardliners oppose the negotiations, some for ideological reasons and others because during the Ahmadinejad administration they gained their political and economic clout as a result of the hostility of the U.S. toward Iran. They are afraid of losing everything. In order to control such hardliners, Khamenei must appear resolute at home.
The second reason is that Khamenei wishes to create a political cover for himself and his authority, in case the negotiations fail. He recognizes that he does not have the authority that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, had, and is maneuvering to put himself in a position to be able to declare that he knew all along that the U.S. is not interested in a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, if the negotiations fail.
Khamenei’s support for the nuclear negotiations is not, however, indefinite. The Rouhani administration must show tangible results, while not crossing Khamenei’s red lines. Thus, talk of dismantling a major part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, espoused by Washington’s hardliners, as well as the Israel lobby will also not go anywhere. Iran will not agree to it.
As the author has emphasized repeatedly - here, here, here, and here - if Washington is interested in the diplomatic resolution of the dispute with Iran, it should recognize Rouhani’s domestic constraints, and offer compromises that he can take home and demonstrate that diplomacy with the U.S. can work. That would ensure marginalizing the hardliners.