P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, March 2

March Arrives: Negotiations Advancing; Debate in DC Intensifying

Bilateral talks between Iran and members of the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) will resume in Montreux, Switzerland beginning today, March 2, and culminating with a full meeting of the political directors from all seven countries on March 5.

The U.S. delegation will include Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz. They will meet again with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi to move the two sides closer to a comprehensive nuclear deal.

Kerry will travel to Montreux to meet with Zarif after addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 2. After meeting with Zarif, Kerry will meet with officials from a number of Middle Eastern countries in both Saudi Arabia and London to discuss regional concerns.

In a briefing for reporters Feb. 27, a senior U.S. official sought to play down expectations of a deal being reached at next week's round of talks in Switzerland.

"Obviously, the negotiations have advanced substantially, gaps have narrowed, but we really don't know if we will be able to close a good deal because ultimately that's going to depend on Iranian decisions."

In a Feb. 28 press conference in Tehran, Zarif said that differences on the sequence of sanctions relief remains a serious obstacle for reaching an agreement. He expressed hope that progress could be made resolving the gaps on this issue at the upcoming round of talks.

Iran and the P5+1 aim to reach a framework agreement by the end of March and complete all technical annexes by June 30.

--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director

Netanyahu Arrival Stirs Controversy

Two weeks before elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver an address to a March 3 joint session of the U.S. Congress about the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. Netanyahu is urging Congress to reject the deal that the United States and it P5+1 partners are pursuing.

In recent statements, he has suggested that still more pressure on Iran can persuade its leaders to agree to completely dismantle their nuclear infrastructure--an outcome they have rejected for over a decade.

In their briefing for reporters, senior Obama administration officials pushed back on that message. As The New York Times reported it, senior administration officials contended that even an imperfect agreement that kept Iran's nuclear efforts in check for an extended period was preferable to a breakdown in talks that could allow the leadership in Tehran unfettered ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium.

"Frankly, I think the challenge is for those who are critics of this agreement, including Prime minister Netanyahu, to lay out why alternative approaches would work better," said one U.S. official.

Earlier today, Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at their annual conference held in Washington. This evening, U.S. National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, will address AIPAC.

"Weighing In" or Congressional Meddling?

On Friday, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), along with five other Republicans and six Democrats, introduced legislation that would, if enacted, halt the implementation of any comprehensive P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran until Congress has a chance for an up-or-down vote.

If passed, this legislation risks killing the deal taking shape that would effectively block Iran's major potential pathways to nuclear weapons development--the uranium-enrichment route and the plutonium-separation route--and guard against a clandestine weapons program. There is not better deal out there. 

Corker's bill, the "Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015," risks derailing a diplomatic solution to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran for several reasons.

  • A vote of disapproval, even if the president's veto would be upheld, would severely undermine U.S. credibility and reduce the chance that Iran would continue to follow though on the agreement. Congress has other, constructive options for weighing in. 
  • The bill would put on hold the implementation of a comprehensive agreement for at least 60 days--likely longer because of congressional procedures. This would delay Iran from taking key steps that would reduce its proliferation potential.
  • The bill would block the president's existing legislative authority to waive certain nuclear-related sanctions at the onset of an agreement. This part of the bill alone creates the possibility that any deal might fall apart.
  • The bill also contains several presidential certification provisions that would require Iran to meet conditions outside the scope of a nuclear agreement, including a reporting requirement whereby the president must provide an assessment to Congress regarding Iran's support for acts of terrorism.

If Congress takes actions to delay, block, or reject the agreement, Iran will be given an excuse to walk away from the agreement and the chance for diplomacy will evaporate. The negotiations would break down and Iran would quickly expand its nuclear capacity. The international sanctions regime would crumble and the risk of a military conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran would grow.

During Feb. 24 testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said he did not think there should be an approval process by Congress. Kerry said there is a "formal process" of consulting and input, and ultimately Congress will vote to lift sanctions.

On Saturday, Foreign Policy reporter John Hudson reported that a spokesperson for the National Security Council said in response to the Corker bill:

The President has been clear that now is not the time for Congress to pass additional legislation on Iran. If this bill is sent to the President, he will veto it. We are in the final weeks of an international negotiation. We should give our negotiators the best chance of success, rather than complicating their efforts.

Twelve senators have co-sponsored the bill, including Corker, Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Marco Rubio (R-Fla), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Angus King (I-Me.).

House Committee on Foreign Affairs Leaders Letter

Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) are taking a different approach than their Senate colleagues and one that is consistent with the administration's policy on the Iran nuclear deal.

They are circulating a letter to the president stating that a nuclear agreement with Iran "must constrain Iran's nuclear infrastructure so that Iran has no pathway to a bomb, and that agreement must be long lasting." The letter reiterates that sanctions on Iran cannot be permanently lifted without Congress passing new legislation to repeal them and Congress will only consider permanent sanctions relief if an agreement forecloses "any pathway [for Iran] to a bomb."

In Case You Missed It

The Arms Control Association sponsored a press briefing on the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 at the National Press Club last Friday.

Panelists included Richard Nephew, program director for Economic Statecraft, Sanctions and Energy Markets, Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Nephew was also the former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department, and director for Iran on the National Security Staff; Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association; and Larry Hanauer, senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, and former senior staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives' Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Full audio of the event and a complete transcript are available at the Arms Control Association website.  

Nephew explained the underlying strategic negotiating principles for Iran and the P5+1 in the nuclear talks. He also stressed the inadvisability of moving forward on more sanctions at this time. Nephew said there is no guarantee that additional pressure will lead to a better deal and it risks blowing up the good deal currently being negotiated.

Davenport laid out the contours of the deal that are taking shape. She stressed that a deal must block Iran's pathways to the bomb using the uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation route. She said that enhanced monitoring and verification would also be essential to guard against a covert nuclear weapons program.

No deal, on the other hand, will mean less access to Iran's nuclear program by international inspectors and Iran moving closer to the bomb.

Hanauer summarized key findings from a new RAND report on the role that Congress can play in the talks.

He said additional sanctions at this time are not necessary or helpful and said that Congress could move quickly on these measures if talks fail to produce an agreement by the end of June. Moving too soon, he said, undermines confidence that the United States can follow through on a deal.

On the Opinion Pages

In recent days, a number of important, compelling opinion columns and editorials have been published in the United States in favor the emerging P5+1 nuclear with Iran.

A Feb. 25 editorial in The New York Times argued:

Critics of any deal--including those in Congress, such as Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican of Illinois, and Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey; and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel--demand complete dismantlement of Iran's program given the country's history of lying about its efforts to produce nuclear fuel and pursue other weapons-related activities.

But their desired outcome simply cannot be achieved. President George W. Bush wasn't able to secure that goal in 2003 when Iran had only a few dozen centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel. Now, 12 years later, Iran has an estimated 19,000 centrifuges, not to mention scores of other facilities, including some that have been hardened to withstand a military attack.

Bombing Iran might delay the nuclear program for a couple of years but it wouldn't eradicate it, and the blowback--provoking Iran to speed up production of a nuclear weapon, fueling regional tensions--would be severe.

The United States and its partners (Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) have properly focused in the negotiations on curbing Iran's activities, especially uranium enrichment for weapon purposes. They are trying to structure the agreement so they would know at least a year in advance if Iran moved to speed up its program to build a nuclear bomb. That would allow plenty of time to re-impose sanctions, interrupt the program through cyberwarfare or take military action.

In his Feb. 26 New York Times op-ed, Robert Einhorn, a former nuclear negotiator also said that full dismantlement is unobtainable.  

To Mr. Netanyahu, eliminating Iran's nuclear weapons capability means banning uranium enrichment, a dual-capable technology that can produce both fuel for civil nuclear reactors and weapons-grade uranium for nuclear bombs. Allowing even a limited enrichment program, in his view, would make Iran a "threshold" nuclear weapon state--able to break out of an agreement and produce nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing.

Banning enrichment and dismantling Iran's existing enrichment facilities would indeed be the best negotiated outcome. But such an agreement is not attainable...

Fortunately, even if an agreement cannot eliminate Iran's capability to enrich uranium to weapons grade, it can prevent Iran from exercising that capability. It can do so by deterring Iran's leaders from making the decision to break out of the agreement and produce nuclear weapons.

Looking Ahead ...

Week of March 2
- Resumption of political level talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Montreux, Switzerland.

Week of March 9 - Possible Senate Foreign Relations Committee markup of "The Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015."

Week of March 16 - Possible resumption of political level talks between Iran and the P5+1, location to be determined.

End of March 2015 - Target date for Iran and the P5+1 to reach a political framework agreement.

June 30, 2015 - Deadline for Iran and the P5+1 to complete the technical annexes for a Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action.