When negotiators in Lausanne on 2 April reached a framework for a comprehensive deal on the Iran nuclear issue, they allowed themselves 89 days to finish up the details before the 30 June deadline. More than half of that time has now passed. But rather than making steady progress in bridging the remaining gaps, the parties seem to be drifting further apart.

I may be wrong about this, because the officials involved are keeping a remarkable discipline in not revealing the particulars of their ongoing talks. My guess, however, is that in this case no news is not good news. The Iran team side is focused on sanctions relief and apparently is not terribly keen on working through the tedious details of how 13,000 centrifuges are to be removed, 8,500 kg of low enriched uranium down-blended, the Arak reactor core replaced and additional verification measures applied, among other necessary steps.

Iran’s negotiation strategy seems to be to postpone these decisions until the end of the June, when the rush to finalise matters would allow details to slip through the cracks. For Iran, the shorter the agreement the better, in keeping with its contention – challenged by the other parties – that anything not prohibited will be allowed. The Iranians may also believe that because Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been dealing with the issue for a longer time, he would have the advantage if decisions were left up to ministers to negotiate.  

Most importantly, the Iranians appear to believe that the other side, particularly President Obama, is more needful of a deal and thus more eager to offer concessions. They are wrong, but who can blame them for wishful thinking? One only has to listen for a few minutes to the shrill attacks from Obama opponents in Washington to absorb the meme that he is ready to accept any compromise in order to be able to claim a foreign policy success for his political legacy.

The claim is absurd. Of course, Obama would like a rare diplomatic victory, but not to the detriment of national interests. And he knows that his legacy would hardly be embellished by a deal that failed the goal of blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. Moreover, not reaching a deal would not harm him politically. Although most Americans support the prospective Iran deal, there was no dancing in the streets as was the case in Tehran when the 2 April framework was announced. The issue is only one of many on Obama’s plate.

For the Iranian government, on the other hand, removing the yoke of sanctions is the top priority. The Iranian people have high expectations of a deal that restores their international trade and removes their isolation. Failure to meet these expectations would put President Hassan Rouhani in political peril.

While dragging its heels in the working-level talks, Iran has been working hard on another front to try to create leverage. In a 9 April speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that inspectors would not be allowed to visit military sites. This was echoed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders. On 20 May, Khamenei insisted that neither would inspectors be allowed to interview Iran’s nuclear scientists.

Taken at face value, these demands mean the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the future would not be able to confirm the absence of undeclared Iranian nuclear activity nor put to rest questions about nuclear activities in the past. Iran’s negotiating partners could not accept either condition. By overplaying his hand in insisting on these conditions, Khamenei would spike the deal.

As in past cases of Khamenei’s red lines, Iran’s negotiators will look for creative ways to interpret his remarks. Last July, for example, he insisted that Iran needed the equivalent of 130,000 first-generation centrifuges. On 2 April, however, Iran agreed to postpone that requirement for more than 15 years. No access to military bases might mean no unrestricted access. Deputy Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi suggested that managed access to military bases under the Additional Protocol may be possible. Managed access cannot mean waiting 24 days to visit a suspicious site as Iran has proposed, however

When the IAEA has reasonable grounds for suspicion, impeding access to individuals and sites involved means it will never be able to judge that Iran’s nuclear programme is entirely peaceful. Unless and until such a judgment is reached, some forms of sanctions pressure must remain in place. If Iran overplays its hand on Khamenei’s conditions, the major powers should hold their ground and let Iran be the party responsible for precluding a deal. 

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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