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P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Talks Alert, February 17
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Authored by Kelsey Davenport on February 17, 2015

Getting Closer....

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on Feb. 15 for discussions that included the negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States). The talks come soon after Zarif met with a number of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Feb. 6-8 Munich security conference. Progress was made in Munich, particularly on uranium enrichment, but there are still gaps on that issue and the sequence of sanctions relief that need to be resolved. Both sides, however, remain committed to closing the deal by June 30.

Prospects for prolonging talks after that deadline seem dim. After meeting with Wang, Zarif said that the current opportunity to reach a deal "must be seized." Wang said China was not in favor of another extension. U.S. President Barack Obama made similar remarks in a joint Feb. 9 press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama said that he does not see "further extension being useful if they [Iran] have not agreed to the basic formulation and the bottom line that the world requires."

In a Feb. 11 public address celebrating the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated Iran's commitment to getting a deal. Rouhani said that Iran is seeking a "win-win" nuclear deal, under which Iran would "continue its transparent peaceful nuclear activities within the framework of the international law and the other side would be required to end its wrong, inhuman and illegal sanctions against Iran. This will be to the benefit of both sides."

--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

Not as Easy as 123

Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is working on a proposal to subject a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran to an up-or-down vote by Congress. While the bill has not yet been introduced, at a Jan. 21 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Corker said his proposal was based on the congressional review process for nuclear cooperation agreements known as 123 Agreements.                                                                               

Corker asserted he is looking for a "constructive" way to weigh in on the talks. However, an up-or-down vote raises a number of concerns and risks the chances of getting a verifiable, comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran that blocks its pathways to nuclear weapons.

  • Delay and Possible Derailment of Steps to Curb Iran's Capabilities. Corker's proposals could require putting implementation of the P5+1 and Iran agreement on hold for at least 90 days (and perhaps longer), including implementation by Iran of key steps that would reduce its proliferation potential. Additionally, it could revoke or block the president's existing legislative authority to waive certain nuclear-related sanctions.
  • Undermines Executive Authority. It is the prerogative of the executive branch to conclude agreements in the national security interests of the United States. A nuclear deal with Iran will not, in any way, limit the military capabilities of the United States, as is the case with bilateral or multilateral nuclear arms control treaties that are subject to the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. Allowing congressional review of such agreements sets a dangerous precedent for future executive branch decisions.
  • Sends the Wrong Message to Iran. In a long-term comprehensive nuclear deal, if Iran is following through on its obligations, Congress will need to act to lift sanctions. A vote of disapproval would send the wrong message to Iran - and the international community - about Washington's intentions to follow through on an agreement.

There are more constructive ways for Congress to monitor compliance and implementation of a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran. In addition to passing legislation removing some of the key nuclear-related measures down the road as part of a deal, Congress provides an important public forum for discussion on implementation of the agreement. Periodic congressional oversight hearings to discuss findings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the executive branch on Iran's compliance with a comprehensive agreement and the impact of such an agreement on Iran's nuclear program can serve an important role in holding both sides accountable. Congress could also pass legislation requiring the president and/or the Director of National Intelligence to report periodically on Iran's compliance with the agreement. Additionally, if Iran fails to comply with a deal, Congress will play an important role in re-imposing sanctions.

For more on the Corker proposal see our Issue Brief

Disingenuous About Dismantlement

Some policymakers cling to the notion that a nuclear deal that requires Iran to dismantle its enrichment program is still feasible. Many are looking for a deal that will dismantle Iran's nuclear weapons capability. Those ships have sailed.

Dismantlement of Iran's uranium-enrichment program may have been possible a decade ago when just a few hundred centrifuges were spinning. But now Iran has nearly 20,000 machines and, according to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, has the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, should Tehran chose to do so.

Rodger Cohen lays out the false debate over dismantlement in a powerful Feb. 12 New York Times op-ed, "Curtail Iran and Win." Cohen contrasts the dismantlement camp with the Obama administration, the "curtailers," that seek,

...a tough deal involving intensive verification over an extended period of a much-reduced enrichment program compatible only with civilian nuclear energy and assuring that Iran is kept at least one year from any potential "breakout" to bomb manufacture.

Cohen points out the "disingenuousness" of the dismantlement camp's argument - namely that Iran already has a nuclear weapons capability and that knowledge is impossible to erase, either with more sanctions or a bombing campaign.

Cohen concludes that while, in a perfect world, Iran would give up enrichment, deals require compromise, and that it is a question of alternatives:

Either you get a negotiated solution that ensures over some 15 years that Iran's program is strictly limited, at least a year from breakout, with eyes and ears on the ground you've never had before, and the plutonium path to a bomb cut off by the transformation of the Arak research reactor - or you go for military action. And what would war achieve? It may set the program back some, but it will ensure that Iran goes for a bomb, inflame anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, and see the current international coalition for sanctions fall apart. That is not good for anyone, including Israel.

Looking Ahead ...

Feb. 20 - Next quarter report on Iran's nuclear program from the International Atomic Energy Agency (expected).

Feb. 27, 1:00-3:00 p.m. -Arms Control Association event at the National Press Club with Richard Nephew, research scholar and program director, Economic Statecraft, Sanctions and Energy Markets Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University; Larry Hanauer, senior international policy analyst at RAND Corporation; and Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

March 3- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Joint Session of Congress on Iran.

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.

Kelsey Davenport