The U.S., Iran, the European Union, Russia and China announced that they had “reached solutions on key parameters” to a nuclear deal April 2 after more than a week of tough negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Speaking at the White House, President Obama called the deal “historic” but also said that it was only a “framework” that depended on a final written agreement being set to paper in coming weeks.
In principle, the deal traded limits on the Iranian nuclear program and broad but unspecified international inspections in exchange for the lifting of U.S. and E.U. sanctions and conditional removal of United Nations sanctions. Obama said that until the written agreement was signed, “our work is not yet done” and that if Iran backslid, “there will be no deal.”
Five things will determine whether the U.S. and Iran can ultimately reach a signed, sealed agreement.
- What the deal says. Iranian acceptance of intrusive international monitoring of its nuclear program, and the ability of the U.S. and others to reimpose penalties if Iran cheats on a deal are the most important parts of any agreement for the Obama administration. The April 2 statement includes some specifics of the inspections, but leaves others open. Iran has apparently agreed to inspections of all parts of the Iranian nuclear program from mining and milling uranium to suspected nuclear weapons research facilities, and is “required to grant access” to suspicious sites. But the details of that access, its frequency and any limits Iran might try to impose are unclear. If the inspectors, or Western spies, turn up evidence of cheating, the U.S. wants to be able to reimpose the tough economic sanctions that forced Iran to the negotiating table without engaging in lengthy diplomatic wrangling at the U.N. The April 2 agreement speaks of removing some UN sanctions, maintaining others and says a “dispute resolution process” will be put in place.
- How Obama handles Congress. The March 31 deadline that drove the current round of talks was actually just a way for the administration to get the U.S. Congress off its back. The real deadline is the June 30 expiration of the Nov. 2013 interim agreement which froze Iran’s nuclear program in return for freezing Western sanctions. Many in Congress believe, rightly, that tough U.S. sanctions helped force Iran to sign that interim agreement to begin with, and now Republicans and some Democrats want a say in whether those sanctions get lifted. Some want to take action to force Iran to agree to concessions in writing. Congressional action could backfire and undermine the April 2 statement before a final deal is written down and signed. The administration is negotiating the terms of any Congressional action, and the outcome of those discussions is unclear.
- How Obama handles the international coalition. The greatest downside to the recent talks in Lausanne, from the U.S. perspective, was the appearance of fractures in the international sanctions coalition. Russia and China’s agreement to squeeze Iran through U.N. sanctions was another key to Iranian concessions over the last few years. At one point in the lengthy talks in Switzerland, Russia seemed to side with Iran over whether a deal had been agreed even as the U.S. and France said one hadn’t, raising the danger of a split. If Iran can divide the U.S. and the E.U. from Russia before signing a final deal June 30, it could escape sanctions without having to follow through on the April 2 concessions it provisionally agreed to.
- What happens in Iran and Saudi Arabia’s proxy war. Our magazine story this week details the region-wide proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is the urgent regional context for the nuclear issue. The Obama Administration is struggling to reassure allies in the Middle East that a deal with Iran doesn’t mean Washington is looking to help Iran’s ascendancy in the new, post-Arab Spring Middle East order. In his White House statement April 2, Obama said he would convene a conference with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab powers this spring as part of that effort. But the worsening violence in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where Iranian and Saudi proxies are battling it out, could have an unexpected effect on the effort to reach a final written agreement.
- How long everyone talks. If the U.S. and Iran can’t get a final written deal by June 30, an ultimate agreement would depend on whether the two sides agree to keep talking, and writing, anyway. Some administration officials have argued it would be better to keep the talks going than to see a complete collapse. Under the terms of the Nov. 2013 temporary agreement, Iran’s program is frozen and the sanctions are in place. But keeping Congress onside, the sanctions coalition together and the Iranians at the table may be impossible after the next deadline.