Iran: Agree to Keep Talking
By: Sharon Squassoni
Iranian and Western negotiators agreed on one thing in late November: to keep talking. The November 2013 Joint Plan of Action envisioned a six-month implementing period for negotiators to arrive at a comprehensive solution on Iran’s nuclear program. This has now become 18 months with the latest extension.
Optimists like Vice President Joe Biden interpret the extension as evidence of sufficient progress to merit continuing negotiations. Yet failure would untether Iran from the restrictions it agreed to last November. To pessimists, the extension is a symptom of Iran’s continued defiance of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
The incentives to keep talking are significant on both sides: Iran receives sanctions relief in exchange for practical limits on its nuclear program. In the first six months, Iran obtained about $6 billion in sanctions relief. The two extensions may provide Iran with access to an additional $8 billion.
For the West, continued negotiations mean further small steps from Iran in limiting its nuclear program. Beginning in January 2014, Iran has downblended its stocks of 2 percent enriched uranium, converted its 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel, agreed to enhanced monitoring, and halted further modifications of key facilities (enrichment plants and the heavy water research reactor). Iran has limited its installment of new centrifuges to replacing broken ones.
But how long can this go on? Maybe indefinitely. And contrary to conventional wisdom, that might not be a bad thing. Part of the problem with the Joint Plan of Action was the insistence that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This formulation speaks volumes about the lack of trust on both sides. In the meantime, the only way to build confidence in intentions is demonstration through actions. Both sides must demonstrate their will and capability to follow through on small steps. Rather than the modalities of negotiations, we should pay attention to implementation of the current agreement to assess whether it builds confidence in the sustainability of a final agreement. Lastly, we should keep an eye on the political windows of opportunity to ensure that they don’t close prematurely.