A Proposed Two-Track Nuclear Negotiations

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

This past February, this author wrote an article for Iran Review entitled "Toward A Final Nuclear Deal or Interim II" in which I anticipated the likelihood of the absence of a long-term comprehensive deal by the end of the six months window, which has now been extended for another four months, i.e., until the end of November, 2014. This is a follow-up that focuses on the merits of a sequel "interim" agreement, in light of the distinct possibility that come November the existing gaps may still preclude a final deal, even though there is now a draft text covering all the main issues.

Per the terms of the negotiated agreement, Iran has agreed to take some additional nuclear steps, such as converting its stockpile of low-enriched uranium into natural uranium, and in return the country will have access to $2.8 billion dollars of its frozen assets; this is deemed as the final extension and either the parties will somehow manage to overcome their substantial differences and ink an agreement or the Geneva "Joint Plan of Action" would dissolve and Iran and the "5 +1" nations would no longer be obliged to the terms of that agreement. On Iran's part, it would mean the resumption of 20% uranium enrichment, the completion of Arak heavy water reactor, and the end of IAEA's special access to Iran's facilities, etc. On the other side, this would imply the end of sanctions' relief, the likely imposition of fresh sanctions, and the like. 

Needless to say, after the excruciatingly protracted negotiation rounds, neither Iran nor the other parties are interested in a failed negotiation and, indeed, this itself may act as an impetus for commonly pushing for an exit from the current impasse. The core outstanding issues, such as the nature and scope of Iranian enrichment, would have to be resolved if there is to be a deal, but the gaps may be too wide to close by November.

Concerning the latter, Iran's Supreme Leader has recently indicated that Iran would need some 190,000 SWU (Separative Work Unit) for its nuclear needs in the future. The Americans, on the other hand, have insisted that President Obama will be unable to sell to the US Congress any deal that would reserve the right to Iran of even 10,000 centrifuges, in other words, the Americans are likely to settle for 8000 or 9000 centrifuges, although publicly they insist on 4000 to 5000. In an interview with the New York Times, Iran's chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, has hinted that Iran may agree to keep the total number of operational centrifuges allowed under the interim agreement for a few years, after which Iran would have unrestricted access to a nuclear fuel cycle on an industrial scale. 

In addition to the issue of centrifuges, there are other divisive issues, such as the duration of the agreement, the pace and timing of sanctions' removal, and the fate of underground Fordo facility, which must be resolved for the sake of a deal, although per the admission of Abbas Araghchi, the deputy chief negotiator, some 65 percent of issues have been resolved and there remains another 35 percent that has so far blocked a deal. As difficult as it to assign exact percentages to the multiple negotiation issues, nonetheless the public statement by Araghchi is a positive sign of tangible progress achieved at the marathon sixth round of negotiations in Vienna in July. 

A Proposed Two-Track Negotiation

Based on the tumultuous history of the nuclear talks, this author is convinced that a two-track negotiation in the course of the next four months is necessary, i.e., the simultaneous pursuit of a final deal and an "interim II." This would mean that while all efforts are focused on reaching a final deal that would effectively end the nuclear standoff and the associated sanctions within a set timeline, a parallel yet subsidiary effort is also expended on the terms of a follow-up interim agreement in case there is no final-status agreement. 

Much as on the surface this proposal runs contrary to the terms of negotiations for an extended talk until the end of November, the stakes being so high and the lack of desirability of a total collapse and unwanted return to the pre-Geneva agreement status, particularly in the area of Iran-IAEA relations, it makes perfect sense to keep this reserved option and explore it on the margin of the next rounds of negotiations. 

As explained in my initial article on an "interim II," some of the issues are technically complex and might be compromised under the gun of artificial deadlines, whereas what is needed is a rational process that does not rush an agreement that can backfire simply because the technical details are far from being settled. 

But, of what details such an "interim II" would consist of? Without doubt, it would retain the key elements of the initial agreement while introducing certain revisions and additions. The terms of new sanctions relief, the duration of the agreement, and the like, would have to be agreed upon, despite Iran's strong desire to end all the "unjust sanctions." A tough pill to swallow, yet nevertheless if faced with the prospect of failed talks and the lack of a final deal, Tehran's second best choice might be none other than seeking an "interim II." The potential downside of a two-track talks is of course that the attractions of a sequel interim agreement could lessen the political will for the sake of a final deal, yet in terms of 'the realm of possible' and pragmatic consideration of the existing and potential options, the validity of a two-track negotiation is unquestionable.

Anticipating the potential objections to this proposal, it may be said that already all parties have agreed on the November deadline as the final deadline. But, nothing is written on stone and re-negotiating the past agreements based on the approach of flexible response might be quite necessary given the rather formidable hurdles facing a final deal.  In effect, this would spell the priority of incremental resolution of issues instead of a complete "package deal," denoting the co-existence of traces of progress in a fluid situation of basic deadlock. 

Needless to say, the US opponents of a brokered deal with Iran will be disquieted by any "interim II" and there might be renewed push by US Congress for new Iran sanctions.  But as the recent editorials in US media have confirmed, the US Congress is highly unlikely to remove the Iran sanctions laws no matter what the outcome of the present talks. In other words, the Iran sanctions laws are here to stay for the foreseeable future and the recent letter by hundreds of US lawmakers to the White House demanding firm action against Iran is simply the latest indication of where the US Congress stands on the issues. Hypothetically speaking, Iran's chance of ending the Western sanctions by proceeding to build a bomb is higher than the present situation, when Iran's denial of proliferation accusations is viewed with suspicion in the West, which has in the past lifted sanctions against the states that have gone nuclear. But, alas, that's an entirely different subject, worth pondering in a separate article. Suffice to say here that Iran's non-proliferation efforts and commitments are strategic and verifiable, thus ensuring that the false accusations are not enforced as facts.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: Two-Track Nuclear Negotiations, Interim Agreement, 5 +1, IAEA, US Congress, New Iran Sanctions, Iran Nuclear Program, Afrasiabi

More By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:

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