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P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, December 2
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Arms Control NOW

Authored by Kelsey Davenport on December 2, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the international media in Vienna, Austria, on November 24, 2014, following P5+1 and European Union-nation negotiations with Iran about the future of its nuclear program. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]After days of near round-the-clock discussions, negotiators announced Monday Nov. 24 in Vienna that talks between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) would be extended through June 30.

Their aim is to complete a political agreement within the next four months, with an additional three months to work out the technical details, according to a statement delivered by P5+1 lead negotiator Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif late on Nov. 24.

Ashton and Zarif said that negotiators see a "credible path" toward a comprehensive agreement based on the "progress made" during the talks and "the new ideas which continue to be explored."

Each side will continue to implement the commitments laid out in the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action during the time period for the extension and undertake some additional actions over the next seven months. (See the summary of Iranian commitments under the extended Joint Plan of Action , below.)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke to reporters  in Vienna on Monday the 24th. Kerry said that "real and substantial progress" was made, including on some of the "most vexing challenges." Negotiators now see ways forward on some intractable issues, Kerry said, but it will take more time.

Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity and the sequence of sanctions relief continue to be the two of the major sticking points in negotiations on a comprehensive agreement.

The length of the extension took many by surprise, as it opens up an opportunity for critics of an agreement to derail the progress made thus far. In the hours after an extension was announced, several members of Congress released statements urging that additional sanctions be placed on Iran.

Kerry asked Congress to support the extension and said that negotiators have "earned the benefit of the doubt" by producing an agreement that worked and has not been violated by either side.

Kerry praised the success of the interim agreement reached last November, saying that "the world is safer than it was one year ago" and that under the agreement "Iran has halted progress on its nuclear program and rolled it back for the first time in a decade."

Other foreign ministers made statements after the extension was announced, including UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond, 

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and Zarif.

Hammond said that the two sides are building a "much better understanding of what an agreement could look like" that is acceptable to both sides. "Everyone is going to have to show some flexibility" to reach an agreement, Hammond said.

The parties will likely meet again in December to continue their negotiations.

--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

Joint Plan of Action A Year Later: Iran's Nuclear Progress Still Frozen

On November 24, 2013, Iran and the P5+1 concluded their interim deal on Iran's nuclear program. The agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action, requires Iran and the P5+1 countries to take specific steps to freeze and in some areas reverse the progress of Iran's nuclear pursuits in exchange for limited sanctions relief,. It also outlines the broad parameters for negotiating a comprehensive deal.

After three rounds of technical talks to discuss the details of implementing the first-phase of the deal, the two sides agreed to begin implementation on January 20, 2014. The first-phase originally lasted six months, through July 20, 2014, while the negotiators worked on a comprehensive agreement. However, negotiators announced on July 19 that the talks would be extended through November 24.

On November 24, Iran and the P5+1 announced a second extension that would leave the obligations from the Joint Plan of Action in place plus some additional measures. Diplomatic sources in Vienna indicate that Iran's additional commitments under the extended Joint Plan of Action are as follows:

  • Turn more of Iran's stocks of 20% oxide into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, taking it off the table in a breakout scenario.  (Iran will convert 35 kg of Iran's remaining approximately 75 kg of 20% oxide into reactor fuel.) 
  • Expand access to existing centrifuge production facilities even further. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will now double the frequency of its access to the sites where Iran makes its centrifuges, and do so in the form of "snap inspections"-- i.e., at the time of its choosing.  This will help in deterring Iran from using these facilities to illicitly produce centrifuges for a covert facility because it increases the likelihood that the IAEA would detect this activity. 
  • Forego any other forms of enrichment, including laser enrichment. 
  • Limit research and development on advanced centrifuges. For the next seven months, thanks to the terms of this extension and previous commitments, Iran is effectively prevented from moving to the next level of development of each of its advanced centrifuges. This means that Iran cannot:
    • pursue semi-industrial-scale operation of the IR-2M, and without that, Iran does not have the confidence to mass-produce this type of centrifuge, which would be necessary in any breakout scenario;
    • Iran cannot feed the IR-5 with uranium gas, the next step in its development;
    • Iran cannot pursue gas testing of the IR-6 on a cascade level, the next step in its development;
    • Iran cannot install the IR-8 at the Natanz Pilot Plant, without which Iran cannot move beyond mechanical testing and into gas testing. 

For more on the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, see the Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, "Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action At A Glance."

More Sanctions? Think Again

Many former skeptics of the interim agreement and harsh critics of the current P5+1 negotiating approach on a comprehensive deal are now praising the extension of the interim agreement and arguing that the additional time should be used to up the pressure on Iran in the hope that it will lead Iran's leaders to make further concessions on their nuclear program.

In a statement released after the talks on Nov. 24, Senators Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.Y.), and John McCain (R-Ariz) said, "we believe this latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal between Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a BBC interview hours before the extension was announced that: "the fact that there's no deal gives us the opportunity to continue the economic pressure that have proven to be the only thing that brought Iran to the table."

Such an approach would be counterproductive and drive Iran away from the negotiating table. The imposition of another round of additional sanctions measures will likely provoke Iran to take escalatory measures, worsen the chances for an effective diplomatic resolution, and lead to yet another Middle East crisis.  

It is also contrary to the terms of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, which says, "The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions."

If the United States is seen as causing the talks to fail by violating the interim agreement, it could also erode international support for the sanctions regime, which has been vital to its success.  

As Kerry said on Nov. 24:

"I hope they [Congress] will come to see the wisdom of leaving us the equilibrium for a few months to be able to proceed without sending messages that might be misinterpreted and cause miscalculation. So my hope is we will have that breadth, and we certainly stand prepared to work with the Congress in every way possible to make sure that everybody's interests are properly listened to, processed, implemented, taken into account. And so I look forward to those discussions when I get back."

Looking Ahead ...

Dec. 3 - Arms Control Association and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace briefing on "The Outcome of the Iran talks and the Next Steps," 9:30 a.m., in Washington, D.C. RSVP   

Dec. 3 - Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing: "Dismantling Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program: Next Steps To Achieve A Comprehensive Deal," 2:00 p.m., in Washington, D.C. 

Mid-Dec. - Anticipated meeting of Iran and the P5+1 diplomats. Location TBD.

March 2015 - Deadline for Iran and the P5+1 to reach a political agreement.

June 30, 2015 - Deadline for Iran and the P5+1 to complete the technical annexes.

Kelsey Davenport