The deadline for the framework agreement in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran is this coming Tuesday, March 31st. That is when the parties are supposed to have a political agreement setting forth the parameters for negotiations on "technical" issues in the final phase of negotiations (scheduled to be completed in the early part of this coming summer).
The frenzied final days of the framework negotiations will be complicated by a new and troublesome wrinkle. Indeed, just yesterday we learned that the Iranian team either did not agree to or no longer will agree to reduce a framework agreement to writing. As such, it now appears that, assuming the parties do agree to a political framework, that framework may not be reduced to a joint writing, signed or otherwise, as the parties proceed to the final "technical" phase. This magnifies potential problems that one can anticipate whenever negotiations are bifurcated as they are in this case, and will not helpful to say the least in the ongoing negotiations with Congress on oversight issues, which is something that I have addressed at length in at least two recent posts and believe to be of critical importance.
The ordinary course issues that bargaining parties can anticipate in any bifurcated bargaining situation were briefly addressed by me here with respect to there negotiations: (my bold):
The second "technical" phase that would follow the negotiation of a "framework" agreement presumes clarity among and between the negotiating partners, such that "technical" matters are just that. But oftentimes in bargaining, for both good faith and bad faith reasons, leaving "technical" matters for a later date often pushes off what in fact is lack of clarity in the framework agreement[.] Indeed, the prospect of having a second phase can cause a party to rest too soon based on a dangerous assumption that "everything can be worked out later". This is what happens in labor negotiations all of the time -- it's that time at 2 a.m. when everyone wants to just go home but the lawyers are trying to get everything down on paper. This is something we should watch for and which the negotiators are presumably well aware of -- but sometimes awareness, standing alone, is meaningless when the spirit of the deal takes over those at the table. I guess I'm old enough to say that I have learned this simple truth the hard way.
In this case, even the ordinary course issues associated with bifurcated bargaining pale in comparison to what the parties may be faced with now, i.e. a framework agreement that has not been reduced to writing for the purposes of, inter alia. guiding the parties at the table and more appropriately addressing the existing oversight dispute with Congress. Accordingly, assuming that the U.S. and its coalition partners will insist on a written agreement in the final frenzied days before the deadline, then what had been understood as a given becomes something that must be "purchased" from the Iranian side of the table in bargaining.
In any event, as David Sanger and Michael Gordon report in their joint analysis in yesterday's New York Times (linked to above and again here), the U.S. and its coalition partners appear to be sticking with their position that any framework agreement be reduced to writing (my bold):
Just last week, as the previous round of talks with Iran came to a close, a senior American official involved in the negotiations said that the framework accord with Iran would have to be more than a political declaration of intentions. Rather, it would have to contain a “quantifiable dimension.”
There is a lot to quantify, from the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges that would remain spinning to exactly how Iran would change the design of a reactor that is under construction to limit the production of plutonium, another pathway to a bomb. But Iran says it will not agree to such specifics, at least for now.
“This is one of the biggest challenges we face,” one European diplomat involved in the talks said in recent days. “The politics in America demand specificity, and an Iranian commitment. And the politics in Iran demand vagueness” and no commitment until a possible final deal — with all its technical annexes — is reached in June.
The European official added, “All of us are in agreement that you don’t make oral deals with Iran.”
The coalition must, in my opinion, remain firm in their insistence that any framework agreement be reduced to writing. Given current circumstances, however, I would be content with a jointly written "term" sheet reflecting the parties understanding of what the framework is. From a pure bargaining perspective, it just seems to me that the marginal costs outweigh the benefits of having a signed agreement instead of a jointly prepared term sheet.
This is one of those times I would seek to extend negotiations, at least until a written term sheet is prepared in such a way that will permit genuine oversight of the political dimensions of the framework and provide at least some assistance to the parties in the second phase of negotiations. Indeed, leaving aside the merits of any deal that would be reflected in such a term sheet, the lack of any jointly written recitation of the terms of the framework spells, in the first instance, an even more contentious oversight fight with Congress. And, indeed, we should all be concerned about a framework agreement that is not reflected on paper.
Bruce S. Levine
New York, New York