When nuclear negotiations with Iran began, policy wonks and pro-Israel advocates marked July 20 on their calendars. It was the deadline set for reaching a historic agreement between Tehran and the global powers, after which Iran would either rejoin the community of nations or face an escalation that could lead to military action down the road.
But now the deadline is set to come and go, without leaving much of a mark.
Gaps between Iran and the group of six nations it is negotiating with are too large to overcome by then, but progress made in six months of negotiations is too significant to give up. And so the finish line is largely expected to move once again, without much opposition being heard from Washington, Tehran — or even Jerusalem.
“Extension is the most likely outcome,” said Gary Samore, who until 2013 served as President Obama’s top adviser on nuclear nonproliferation. Samore, now executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, explained that pushing back the deadline is the most reasonable course of action for Iran and for the United States.
“Both sides would prefer the current status quo than a return to the previous situation when we were steadily increasing sanctions and Iran was increasing enrichment and it appeared to be heading to a military confrontation,” Samore added.
Six months have passed since the interim nuclear agreement was signed, and its expected extension gives pause to take toll of what negotiations have yielded so far. While an agreement is still elusive, all parties have learned important lessons during this interim period: Iran discovered that the path to opening world markets and to ending its international seclusion will be longer than it had expected; America has learned that even under crippling economic pressure, Iran can still run a tough bargain, and Israel, initially fearful of the interim agreement, which it viewed as a step toward the complete collapse of a carefully structured sanctions regime, found out that Iran, by and large, can stick to a deal and that the world is not rushing to unlock Iran’s ring of isolation.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to admit that the initial six months have passed without a breakthrough. As the July 20 deadline approaches, the United States has increased pressure, signaling to Iran that it should not count on an extension of the interim agreement and that it would be better off showing up at the negotiating table with willingness to compromise.
“An extension is by no means automatic,” said a senior administration official briefing reporters on the status of talks on July 3. The official argued that meeting the deadline is “not impossible” but it was up to Tehran to demonstrate flexibility. “This is not a negotiation about two parties meeting each other halfway,“ the official said.
But as the clock ticks toward the deadline, the gaps remain significant, most visibly on issues relating to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium after a deal is signed. Tehran, according to press reports based on sources from both sides, insists on maintaining its existing stockpile of enriched uranium and keeping thousands of centrifuges that would be able to produce more low-level enriched uranium. The United States and its partners have insisted on reducing the existing stockpile of enriched uranium and limiting the number of operative centrifuges to several hundred, a number that will allow enrichment for research and energy uses but will keep Iran at least a year away from acquiring enough nuclear material to build a bomb.
This gap has placed Israel much closer to the United States than when negotiations began. The Israeli government still insists that only a zero enrichment deal could be acceptable. And while the Obama administration has never agreed to this demand, it is now clear that Washington’s position on this issue is much closer to that of Jerusalem than it is to Tehran’s standpoint.
The interim deal, in retrospect, also drove positions of Obama’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government closer, as Israel gradually eased its public and private campaign against the short-term deal after being reassured that it did not lead to the crumbling of the sanctions regime and that it in fact slowed down Iran’s race to the bomb. “Israelis have concluded that the interim agreement is working,” Samore said, adding that after speaking with Israeli officials, “it was clear to me that the Israeli government would be quite comfortable with an extension of the interim agreement.”
Pro-Israel advocacy groups have also adjusted their tone and are now focusing on actions that would give Congress more of a say in approving the final agreement, once reached. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been lobbying for a watered-down sanctions bill in Senate that would suspend implementation of new sanctions for at least another year in order to give negotiations a chance. It also backs calls to require the administration to bring any final agreement to Congress for approval.
From the Iranian standpoint, talks with the West, while providing some short-term relief, were also disappointing. “What the Iranians want and need is the ability to deal with the world,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former State Department official. Speaking at a July 8 panel discussion at the United States Institute Of Peace, Maloney explained that “there’s a big difference between what the United States considers to be a tolerable rehabilitation period and what the Iranians are looking to get out of this deal.” Iran would like to see a quick transition, she said, from being ostracized by the international business community to becoming once again a trade partner.
“There won’t be a flood of business to Tehran on day one,” added Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury Department senior adviser who is now with the Center for A New American Security. She added that even if an agreement is reached and some sanctions are lifted, the business community would demonstrate “a lot of caution” before renewing investments in Iran.
In the talks, representatives of the United States and its partners made clear to the Iranians that sanction relief would be spread out over decades and that part of the sanctions imposed on Iran by Congress have to do with its human rights record and its support for terror, and therefore these measures are unlikely to be revoked after a nuclear deal is reached.
In practical political terms, it is unlikely that Congress will overturn any sanctions bill in the short term. “The president is likely to suspend sanctions through waivers,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service. These six-month waivers will allow relief from sanctions without changing the law or officially revoking the measures. In the longer term, Congress could be willing to let sanctions expire or to change existing laws, but that will happen only if lawmakers are assured that the deal is final and that it has resolved the Iranian nuclear issue once and for all. “If it doesn’t completely take the Iranian nuclear weapons off the table, there will be more skepticism,” Katzman warned.