Last month the E3+3 (often referred to as the P5+1) met with Iran for another round of talks in the nuclear negotiations. The E3+3, leading the nuclear negotiations with Iran since 2006, is made up of UK, France, and Germany plus China, Russia, and the United States.
In November 2013, only months after Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani took office, all parties agreed to the Joint Plan of Action. Negotiations have been ongoing since the interim Joint Plan of Action was implemented in January 2014. The deadline for a comprehensive deal was originally July 20, 2014, but was extended to November 24, 2014 and then extended yet again, to March for a framework agreement and June 30, 2015 for the detailed plan. Disagreements remain over certain points, including the length of the deal, the timeline for sanctions relief measures, and limits on the volume of uranium Iran can enrich.
Following a meeting in early February, Iran’s Leader, Ali Khamenei made a statement maintaining suspicion toward the West, but supporting any fair nuclear deal. No major breakthroughs were announced, but statements by US Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif were optimistic and both indicated that another extension on the talks would be unproductive.
President Rouhani has said that the negotiating sides have “narrowed the gaps” and that an agreement is getting closer. An article citing two diplomats involved in the talks said that a current proposal includes allowing Iran to maintain most of their centrifuges, but would reconfigure them to reduce the enriched uranium that can be produced. It would take weeks to change them back to their previous reconfiguration, and this would be closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A similar proposal from Iran was rejected last year by the United States.
Congress is informally debating further sanctions legislation from hawkish members that threaten chances of a deal. Meanwhile, the Speaker of the House John Boehner has gone around traditional diplomatic protocol and invited the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress on March 3rd without consulting President Obama, in the middle of the Israeli election campaign. It is likely that Netanyahu will speak in support of more sanctions and against an agreement made by Obama that allows Iran to enrich any uranium. There remain disagreements over states’ rights to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but it is likely that any deal will allow Iran to continue to enrich up to 3.5%.
The bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran if a deal is not reached by June 30th has passed the Senate Banking Committee. President Obama has said he would veto it, but there may yet be enough Congressional support to override this. Iran’s parliament has drafted a bill that would require Iran stop negotiations and resume frozen nuclear activities if the United States imposes new sanctions. Equally importantly, it is likely that support for a united international front to pressure Iran would be fractured by more US sanctions at this point.
As the March deadline for the framework deal approaches, there are only a few options. Ideally a deal will be reached that is considered acceptable to all parties. It is unclear whether the parties would be in a position to extend the framework deadline and still be capable of reaching a final deal by June. Whether this later deadline can be extended is unclear - there are strong incentives to stay at the table, but the credibility of the negotiations would be deeply harmed. The US Congress would probably push forward to pass a sanctions bill with enough support to override a presidential veto, and likely collapse negotiations. The bottom line is that if a framework for the deal is not reached by March and a final deal is not reached by the end of June, the negotiation process will be in trouble.