The countdown is on. There are only a few weeks to go to wrap up the nuclear deal between Iran and the US, yet there are still problems with negotiations that make it look as if the self-imposed deadline of July 1 won’t be reached.
On April 2 of this year, an outline of a deal was agreed upon in Switzerland. Iran broadly agreed to cap its nuclear programme for at least a decade and be bound to more intrusive inspections of its atomic sites. In return, Iran expects a lift to the international sanctions currently placed on the country. This is progress from years of negotiations. However, there are some key final details that need to be sorted before a deal can be reached.
First, a schedule for the removal of sanctions is proving to be a point of tension. Iran want all sanctions removed, and they want them removed quickly. However, the P5+1 group, the group of countries negotiating with Iran, insist that sanctions can only be removed when the agreement is demonstrably implemented: in other words, they want results first. The P5+1 is in a tricky situation: act on removing sanctions too early and they lose leverage in the implementation of the scaling back of Iran’s nuclear programme, but act too late and they risk derailing a fraught and fragile deal.
Technicalities in the agreement’s implementation are also up for debate. It has not yet been decided where Iran’s nuclear stockpiles should go. Should they be sent abroad, or converted into non nuclear material and kept in Iran? There is also disagreement as to the access given to the International Atomic Agency Inspectors. The P5+1 and the Agency are pushing for full access to the country, but Iran is being very defensive over its military sites.
These important but undecided details of the deal were thrust into the spotlight even more last week when it was reported that Tehran’s nuclear stockpiles have increased by 20% in the last 18 months. During interim negotiations, the agreement from Iran was that it would stop its growth in stockpiles. Trust in Iran to keep to its promises is diminishing.
The removal of international sanctions would lead to the unleashing of billions of dollars in frozen assets, as well as a sudden influx in investment into the country as trade and banking restrictions are released. Iran would have more economic power in the Gulf region, and as a result the US and P5+1 also face international pressure against the deal.
The mostly Sunni countries in the Gulf region fear the repercussions of an economically and militarily strong Shiite Iran. Known to fund militant groups and actively interfere in Gulf politics, a strong Iran could have serious implications for the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia have been particularly vocal about its opposition to the nuclear deal: whilst it is unlikely that Iran will wage war on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, it is not unthinkable that it would work to undermine Shiite regimes through opposition movements and militant groups such as Hezbollah.
Israel have also opposed the nuclear deal, claiming that Iran will never stick to the agreement, and that it will continue to increase its nuclear capacity. As a state fundamentally opposed to Israel, and complicit in the funding of Hamas, a stronger Iran poses a strong threat to Israel.
Nonetheless, Obama insists that the nuclear deal is the only way in which an attempt can be made to control Iran. At the moment, the ‘breakout time’ it would take for Iran to create a nuclear bomb if it so desired is 2-3 months. The implementation of the plan, designed to last at least 10-15 years, is hoped to increase that breakout time to around one year. Moreover, Obama hopes that the reintegration of Iran into the world economy will liberalise the country, meaning that even if it were able to, Iran would be less likely to want to create nuclear weapons in the first place.
A deal is eminently desirable in the containing of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and capabilities. However, it seems unlikely that the P5+1 will be able to iron out the last minute technicalities and achieve a workable and mutually beneficial deal in the short time they have left before their July 1 deadline has to be extended.
The clock is ticking.