Negotiations last month in New York between the P5+1 and Iran on a permanent agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief did not appear to achieve much progress, despite the presence of foreign ministers and heads of states attending the United Nations General Assembly proceedings. Instead, both sides appeared more focused on assigning blame to each other. For that reason, it is not too early to begin thinking through what happens if talks fail to produce a final agreement by the November 24 deadline. Another extension of the interim agreement negotiated almost a year ago should be at the top of the agenda for all involved, given the clear benefits already delivered and the strategic vacuum that would result if it withers away.
In announcing this past July the temporary extension of the interim agreement, both sides were emphatic it was only designed to facilitate time for additional talks on a permanent accord. At various instances since then, officials from both Iran and the P5+1 governments have thrown cold water on the idea of an additional extension. From the perspective of maximizing negotiating leverage, it makes sense for each side to emphasize that midnight is approaching and that, if the other side does not make the hard choices and difficult compromises necessary for a permanent deal, all will be lost.
Yet it is unclear if this mutual gamesmanship will produce the necessary conditions for a permanent agreement. Although Iran and the P5+1 appear to have converged on a number of key issues, including verification measures and the final disposition of the Arak reactor and the Fordow enrichment facility, major gaps remain over two core issues: the size of the enrichment capacity — and thus breakout capability — Iran will possess during the course of a permanent agreement, and the length of duration of that agreement.
If talks collapse and the interim agreement is allowed to expire, we are likely to witness a significant escalation of regional tensions. Iran will likely move to quickly reconstitute 20 percent enrichment production, and remove caps on its 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile by ending its conversion into oxide form. It will reduce IAEA access to the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities from the current daily inspections to the bare-bones requirements under its safeguards agreement. It may introduce new, more advanced centrifuges like the IR-2m model to replace older and less efficient IR-1 models, enhancing its capability to enrich uranium more quickly. Threats of military action against Iran will resurface, even as a U.S.-led coalition pursues action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, supported tacitly by Iran itself.
Is this outcome in the best interests of the United States and its P5+1 partners? Do they benefit from a return to an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program under minimal international oversight, especially if the price to avoid such an outcome would be limited and very modest sanctions relief? Most observers would agree this is certainly not the case. Therefore, it only makes sense for the P5+1 to seek a more permanent extension of the interim agreement in the event a final agreement remains beyond grasp this fall. Any such agreement should have a duration of at least one year, with straightforward procedures for renewal if both sides agree. The continuation of an interim agreement would provide the breathing space needed for all sides to take an extended break from negotiations over a permanent deal. This may be a healthy outcome, as it would allow the negotiating partners to step back from a full year of frenetic and non-stop diplomacy, assess the state of play and the viability of their objectives, and eventually return to the negotiating table with a fresh perspective. Talks could resume in the spring of 2015, with all parties confident the situation has not dramatically deteriorated during the interim.
Skeptics of this proposal, especially those in the U.S. Congress, will argue that the West would be voluntarily surrendering its greatest leverage – the threat of renewed sanctions escalation – in exchange for half-hearted limits on the Iranian program while allowing Tehran to buy more time. However, the most potent sanctions imposed by the United States and its EU partners – the measures directly targeting Iran’s financial and energy sectors – would remain in place and continue to exact an accumulating toll on Iran’s economy. International investors would continue to shy away from major investment in Iran in the face of uncertainty on whether and when these sanctions would be removed. Separately, absent a major Iranian provocation, it is difficult to envision a significant strengthening of international sanctions against Tehran. The United States and its European partners have largely done all they can, and it is highly dubious that third parties like China, India, Turkey and others will sign on to more aggressive efforts, especially in the face of a robust Iranian public diplomacy campaign to avoid blame for any failure of the talks. Hence, we are likely to see an entrenchment of the sanctions status quo if diplomacy fails to produce results this fall, without the addition of any meaningful new measures. In that case, it only makes sense for the United States and its partners to lock in a corresponding status quo on Iran’s nuclear program while negotiations pause.
Critics will also declare that a normalization of the interim agreement will implicitly signal the consent of the international community to Iran’s current enrichment program. Yet that would only be the case if the international community agreed to lift sanctions against Iran, along with the associated United Nations Security Council resolutions that have provided a legal basis for those sanctions. If the most potent sanctions against Iran endure, it will be difficult to characterize any extension of an interim deal as an acceptance of the current size and scope of Iranian enrichment.
The immediate focus for the Obama Administration over the next six weeks will be to emphasize the unique opportunity for Iran to once and for all resolve the international concerns over its nuclear program and accrue the benefits from the lifting of the onerous sanctions that have strangled the Iranian economy in recent years. Yet, if such efforts cannot yield a permanent agreement, it will be incumbent upon the United States and other P5+1 members to avoid making a disappointing outcome exponentially worse. Maintaining the core elements of the interim deal, especially the verifiable restrictions on the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment, would freeze the Iranian nuclear program in place while leveraging existing sanctions and other forms of pressure to compel Tehran into an eventual compromise.
Jofi Joseph worked on U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program and participated in P5+1 negotiations with Iran as a White House National Security Council staffer from 2011 to 2013.