Iran Nuclear Framework: What’s the Big Deal?

Key features, sticking points and next steps

By Sumitha Narayanan Kutty

Iran and the P5+1 countries have negotiated a framework agreement and are now one step closer to a nuclear deal that will limit the former’s nuclear programme. This framework, announced after its original deadline of March 30, spells out key parameters that will now be carried forward to the final deal (to be negotiated by June 30).

Contrary to expectations of a vague statement or verbal understanding, the terms that were jointly announced by EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif were pretty detailed. These parameters have of course been extensively covered by the media and also accessible via a White House fact sheet. Most parameters last ten years, some longer.

Salient Features

  • Iran’s enrichment capacity (number of operating centrifuges) will be cut by half
  • Breakout timeline (currently at 2-3 months) will be increased to one year
  • Arak reactor will be reconfigured, Fordow facility will no longer enrich uranium
  • IAEA Additional Protocol will be implemented, providing greater access to facilities

The next three months focus on the more difficult part of the job – hashing out these technicalities.

Arms control experts seem to agree that the terms address proliferation concerns since the Iranians seem to have agreed to extensive monitoring and verification measures. In addition, the terms (surprising to many) actually favor the United States given the intrusive nature of these inspections.

It is however not surprising that Israel has voiced loud concerns over the ‘bad deal’ though it is interesting to note that the Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, have remained cautiously silent. (US President Barack Obama has invited the latter group – the GCC countries – to Camp David to discuss the deal and assuage serious concerns on regional security.)

Sticking Point(s)

A major sticking point in this final round of talks was sanctions relief. This issue left the P5 delegates particularly divided, with France balking at the idea of quick reversal of UN Security Council Resolutions (sanctions) and Russia opposing the automatic “snapping back” of sanctions if Iran violated any condition.

After Thursday’s announcement, some confusion remains regarding the same. The press release put out by the Iranians seems to gloss over the conditions for reversal of UN sanctions while the White House fact sheet is quite specific on that Iran fulfill its commitments or face immediate penalties for non-compliance. Also, when and how these sanctions would be rolled back will need to be determined once all parties reconvene to hammer out the actual nuclear deal.

(It must be noted here that sanctions levied on Iran for human right violations and its support for international terrorism are not under consideration)

Next Steps

Obviously, the work does not stop here. The road ahead is tough for both the American and Iranian teams with each side now having to present the framework to political opponents and critics at home.

Tehran

The Majlis (parliament) is not required to vote on the agreement. The decision making chain is as follows –

Supreme Leader (SL)

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Supreme National Security Council

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Zarif and co)

Zarif has been in constant consultation with the SL and proceeded with the presser in Lausanne only after Khamenei’s thumb’s up. However, the possibility that Khamenei backs out as technicalities are further discussed cannot be ruled out.

Washington DC

Obama has already briefed the Congress leadership on the deal and his administration will continue to reach out to members through next week. Reports on this initial briefing seem to convey a sense of appreciation for the robustness of the framework, even from Republican members.

Obama has previously made it clear that he will veto any new sanctions (including most recent Corker legislation) that may damage the negotiations. Given the new framework, there is hope Congress will not undercut but give space for negotiations until June.

If Congressional oversight seems impossible, Obama will forge an executive agreement. Perhaps quite fitting.

It took an executive agreement for the United States to get out of Iran (the release of embassy hostages in 1981). It could take another (in a sense) to get back in.

Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is a Scholar at The Takshashila Institution.

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