The Debate

P5+1 to Offer Iran Another Bad Nuclear Deal?

Comments by a US official suggest the P5+1 will propose another unserious deal to Iran today in Geneva.

Zachary Keck

The U.S. and P5+1 appear to have prepared a bad deal to offer Iran this week as an initial agreement toward reaching a comprehensive solution to the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Iran and the P5+1 will begin a two-day meeting in Geneva today that aims to resolve the over decade-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Ahead of the meeting this week, both Iranian and U.S. officials have suggested that a first step deal could be reached at this meeting or in the near future.

The purpose of the first-step deal would be to buy the Iranian and U.S. administrations more time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement by helping to stave off criticism from hardliners in both countries who oppose diplomacy. The seemingly coordinated public relations effort was encouraging in and of itself and seems part of a broader trend that has been evident since Hassan Rouhani’s election, in which Iranian and American officials are taking into account the domestic pressures the other side faces.

The general positive atmosphere earlier in the week, however, seemed to be dampened on Wednesday during a background briefing American officials gave to journalists after arriving in Geneva where the talks will take place.

The background briefing was given by a “Senior Administration Official” whose name was withheld from U.S. State Department transcripts. Nonetheless, the official basically identified herself as the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, through numerous comments she made during the briefing.  

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Although the Senior Administration Official refused to give precise details on the first step deal the U.S. will offer Iran at the meeting today and tomorrow, what (s)he would say about it strongly suggested the deal would not be viewed positively by the Iranian side. If anything the comments could be stingier than the borderline offensive offer the P5+1 made to Iran earlier this year before Rouhani’s election, and in other rounds of negotiations in recent years.

The official opened by saying that the U.S. is hoping to achieve “an initial understanding that stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward for the first time in decades, and that potentially rolls part of it back.” The purpose of this, as noted above, would be to “put time on the clock” for further negotiations aimed at finding a comprehensive solution. The administration is thus aiming to undercut the frequent criticism skeptics in the U.S. and allied countries make that Iran is simply using negotiations to stall for time as it advances its nuclear program.

When later pushed by reporters to reveal more details about what the U.S. expects from Iran during an initial agreement, the official again refused to go into specifics but said that it would have to “address the level of enrichment, the stockpiles of enrichment, the capacity of their facilities, the verification and monitoring. All of those elements must be undertaken and resolved in a first step – resolved to put time on the clock, not resolved finally; that’s the final agreement.”

The official then confirmed that the P5+1’s Almaty proposal that Iran rejected last spring would be the “basis for moving forward” during this week’s negotiations, before adding “but I would suspect that any first step will fill that [the Almaty proposal] out a little bit because we want them to not only ensure that their program does not advance, but we are looking at ways to make sure that we put additional time on the clock.”

The Almaty proposal was first presented by the P5+1 to Iran during negotiations back in February of this year. Its contents were later leaked to a number of journalists, including Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen, who wrote of the proposal: “The P5+1 confidence building proposal calls on Iran to suspend 20% enrichment; ship out the 20% stockpile it doesn’t require for medical use; agree to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring; and suspend operations, but not dismantle the cascades, at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility; for a period of six months.”

If Iran accepted this, according to Rozen, the U.S. and EU would have offered to remove sanctions against Iran on trading gold, precious metals and petrochemicals (but not any of the actually important sanctions), spare parts for Iranian civilian aircraft, as well as promise that no additional EU or UN sanctions (but not U.S. ones) would be imposed during the six-month period. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian negotiators do not appear to have taken the offer seriously, as Iran countered by offering, in Rozen’s words, to “suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas to oxide, in exchange for recognition of its right to enrich and a lifting of some banking sanctions.”

In other words, both sides offered minimal concessions in return for the other side agreeing to meet most of its major demands up front. Rozen reflected, “Western officials characterized the Iranian counter-offer as asking for a lot, and offering very little.” Iranian officials no doubt saw the same characteristics in the P5+1 proposal.

From the senior U.S. official’s admittedly vague description of the new proposal on Wednesday, it appears that the P5+1 will again demand that Iran address all of their major concerns up front. In fact, it is likely to ask for greater concessions from Iran, given the official’s comment that the new initial agreement would “fill out” the Almaty proposal. This in all likelihood means that the U.S. and its allies will also demand a halt to construction of Iran’s heavy water plant, which in many ways is a greater proliferation threat than Tehran’s enrichment facilities but has curiously not elicited much concern from the U.S. until recently. Filling out the Almaty proposal could include other new demands as well.

With regards to sanctions relief in the new P5+1 proposal, the senior U.S. official said that if Iran agreed to the requested constraints on its nuclear program, “We are prepared to offer limited, targeted, and reversible sanctions relief. We are not talking about touching the core architecture of the Iranian sanctions regime in this first step in any way. And if Iran does not live up to its obligations under the initial understanding, or if we cannot get a comprehensive agreement finalized, any economic relief we will have given Iran can, in fact, be reversed.”

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It’s difficult to discern from these comments what will be offered in terms of sanctions relief, and this undoubtedly affects how serious the P5+1 proposal is. However, the official’s statement seems to eliminate any possibility that any major sanctions relief will be included. For example, when the official said the offer won’t touch the “core architecture of the Iranian sanctions regime,” this very likely meant the U.S. and EU will not be offering to remove sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and financial institutions, which are the most critical ones for the Iranians. The core architecture of the sanctions could also very likely include the numerous UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. This interpretation seems especially likely given that the official said the sanctions relief would be reversible and the UNSC sanctions would be much more difficult to put back in place.

In recent weeks there has been some talk in the Western press that the Obama administration may be intending to offer to unfreeze Iranian funds in the U.S. banking system. This would seem sensible because such an action wouldn’t require the consent of Congress since the funds were frozen via executive order. The official’s statement on Wednesday seems to be at odds with this suggestion, however, given the statement that “any economic relief we will have given Iran can, in fact, be reversed.” If the U.S. were to unfreeze these funds Iran would almost certainly move quickly to transfer them out of the U.S. banking system, which would mean that the relief could not be reversed.

One possibility is that the U.S. intends to offer Iran a six-month suspension on its sanctioning of third parties that import Iranian crude. Under this scenario, for half a year Iran’s mostly Asian oil customers would be allowed to purchase as much oil from Iran as they sought, without fear of coming under U.S. financial sanctions. This would seem to me to touch upon the core architecture of the current sanctions regime but the Obama administration’s interpretation of this phrase could be significantly different. Moreover, it seems like the White House does not technically have the authority under U.S. legislation to grant this reprieve without the consent of Congress. On the other hand, this form of sanctions relief would easily be reversible.   

U.S. legislation does also offer the president a “national security waiver” on sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank. However, exercising this would again seemingly contradict the official’s statement about keeping in place the core sanctions against Iran.

It’s worth reiterating that the vagueness of the senior U.S. official’s comments makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact nature of the proposal. Moreover, the background briefing did offer some grounds for optimism. First, the official suggested (in the context of what types of sanctions relief would be offered) that the P5+1 might allow Iran to accept certain concessions while rejecting others. However, at other times her statements suggested Iran would have to accept all of the constraints for there to be a deal.

Perhaps more notably, the official strongly implied that Iran’s negotiating team were largely aware of what constraints the P5+1 proposal would ask Iran to accept on its nuclear activities, as well as what sanctions relief it might receive in return for these concessions.  There was even a hint that Iran’s proposal from last month’s P5+1 meeting, as well as during subsequent technical meetings, had covered many of the same areas. If true, this alone would be strong grounds for optimism.

That being said, and despite the lack of details, the official’s remarks on the P5+1’s proposal offered little reason to think that the Iranian side would accept anything like what they will be offered. The Almaty proposal was not a serious offer by any objective standard. The new deal, as noted above, would ask for Iran to make even greater concessions. And although the official was extremely vague in what kind of sanctions relief Iran might receive for these concessions, the comments seemed to preclude many if not all the major forms of sanctions relief that Iran is seeking.

Therefore, from what can be gained from the official’s comments on Wednesday, it would seem that the Iranian side would have to try and sell an agreement in which Iran met most of the P5+1’s major demands on its nuclear program while getting little if any of the major concessions Tehran is seeking in return. It’s difficult to imagine Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif agreeing to try and sell such a deal at home; it’s all but impossible to imagine them succeeding at this task.

As negotiations begin, a general sense of positivity and optimism continues to emanate from both sides. Still, there’s reason to believe black clouds lie ahead.