Bruce Levine's picture


    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

    Twitter: @levine_bruce


    For anyone interested, this is a transcript of a press conference on the plane heading back to negotiations presented by a "senior state department official" (presumably Josh Earnest).  In any event, the US stands by its prior descriptions of the need for an adequately detailed written description of the framework.  Here are some pertinent excerpts from that transcript (my bolds): 

    SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So Senior State Department official.

    . . .  

    In terms of setting expectations, as you all know and have heard us say many times, we are focused on getting a political framework that addresses all of the major elements of a comprehensive deal done by the end of March. That is the date we are focused on. We made – I think we would say we made more progress in the last round than we had made in the previous rounds, which often happens once you’re getting closer to a deadline, I would say. And we can see a path forward here to get to an agreement. We can see what that path might look like. That doesn’t mean we’ll get there. And I think if you asked many people in the delegation, we truly do not know if we will be able to do this. But I do think it’s important that we see a path forward. We’ve discussed all of the substantive issues at the political and expert level that will need to be part of this.

    I probably don’t have much more at the top to say than that. I’ll probably just open it up to questions and I’m sure you all have many things you want to ask. Who wants to start?

    QUESTION: Thanks. Can you tell us a little bit more about this issue of written vs. non-written, and how much of a difference it makes? I know that we had been told that they wanted to have an agreement that would have – be quantifiable and would have specific elements. So how does that gel with the supreme leader not wanting something until the end of June written?

    SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, a couple things. That comment a senior Administration official said to some of you last week about having a quantifiable – I think was the term [Senior Administration Official] used – specifics absolutely is still the case. We do not know what form this will take if we can get there at the end of March. I know that’s a big question people have. But regardless, we have always said it needs to have specifics. We will need to communicate as many specifics as possible to the public in some form or fashion. What that will look like we truly just do not know at this point yet. Obviously, we’ll be communicating that to Congress as well. But I think what folks are focused on right now is the substance of what we are trying to work towards in a political framework, and as we get closer here, I think to conversations about form for some sort of public announcement will be a part of the discussion, but we truly do not know at this point.

    But I do want to underscore that we believe and know that we will have to share as many specific details publicly as we can, with the caveat that the work of doing annexes if we can get to a political framework is very tough work. It involves a lot of details that are very important to the implementation of this deal, so noting that as well.

    QUESTION: I notice that you’re saying “political framework,” not “political framework agreement.” Just following up on Indira’s question, is that just – is there --


    QUESTION: No reason for that. So --

    SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve also said “understanding.” We use a bunch of different words. It all means the same thing.

    QUESTION: Do you think it will mean the same thing to Congress, though?

    SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t want to speak for Congress, certainly. But I think what we’ve heard from them in our discussions is that they want to see specifics on the issues that are important to cutting off the four pathways, to getting to a year breakout. So I think regardless of what word we use, what word we eventually end up calling it, I think what they’re most focused on is what we’re most focused on – is actually the specifics.


    The "political framework" versus a plot of "technical details" is either a schedule of discussions leading to a binding agreement or a condition that cancels any deal that is proposed.

    There can be no deal if it doesn't include very specific provisions to agree to.

    The "not in writing" element gets back to the question of negotiators acting in good faith. If the condition is put forward in the interest of making a deal, it can't be a feature of the deal itself.

    Hey Moat,

    Thanks for commenting, and I appreciate your interest in this process stuff, which perhaps through the power of my own inner nerd, I find fascinating.  But it really is useful, I think, to think about this writing issue and what it means at this point in year-plus long negotiations involving the entire international community -- as represented by the P5+1 coalition that sits across the table from Iran.  

    One thing I now realized i missed and I wish I would have done some better research (OK googling :)) earlier, and that is that it appears that Iran, at least since February, has made it clear that it does not intend to sign a framework agreement.  But in any event, assuming good faith on both sides, it appears (publicly of course) that the parties remain divided on whether there will be a written (something), or whether there will be a verbal understanding (a handshake so to speak) between the parties about the contours of the final agreement.

    Side note: I do not wish to suggest by any means that there is no value to a handshake in bargaining--to the contrary, it is a metaphor for the trust that has to exist in order to come to agreement.  And I can tell you that in my world handshakes continue to go a very long way -- and jokes about unions aside (yes, I've heard them all!), I mean that in a very positive way.  

    In any event, time permitting, I'm going to expand this thread to include some of more links that are addressing the issues that we understand continue to separate the parties.  That is not meant to detract from the importance of I have tried to place in this post on the need for more tangible evidence of an agreement on political issues that will: (1) guide the parties in the final phase of negotiations and (2) provide adequate information to the coalition partners' respective domestic constituencies, Congress in our case in particular, and to our allies for which we serve as bargaining representative in these negotiations.  I do not see a handshake alone being sufficient for those purposes, and I am looking to see how this issue evolves over the weekend. 

    Stay tuned.

    This is an interesting substantive development that is scooped by AP concerning whether Iran will be permitted, as part of the deal, to continue spinning centerfuges at its formerly secret Fordo facility, which is a reinforced underground facility, subject to inspections and other limitations that would be presumably set forth in writing in the final agreement.  But it is a peculiar thing to have on the table now I would say, and perhaps at any time because, rightly or wrongly, it has raised some eyebrows about many who are asking why such a facility would ever be part of a peaceful nuclear program, much less in the context of an international deal that is premised on unprecedented transparency.  Here are some excerpts from the article I link to:

    The United States is considering letting Tehran run hundreds of centrifuges at a once-secret, fortified underground bunker in exchange for limits on centrifuge work and research and development at other sites, officials have told The Associated Press.

    The trade-off would allow Iran to run several hundred of the devices at its Fordo facility, although the Iranians would not be allowed to do work that could lead to an atomic bomb and the site would be subject to international inspections, according to Western officials familiar with details of negotiations now underway. In return, Iran would be required to scale back the number of centrifuges it runs at its Natanz facility and accept other restrictions on nuclear-related work.

    . . .

    Iran reported the site to the IAEA six years ago in what Washington says was an attempt to pre-empt President Barack Obama and the prime ministers of Britain and France going public with its existence a few days later. Tehran later used the site to enrich uranium to a level just a technical step away from weapons-grade until late 2013, when it froze its nuclear program under a temporary arrangement that remains in effect as the sides negotiate.

    And I could not leave this thread for work without including a link about everybody's favorite guy from the eastern tip of the Mediterranean pond, the one and only Bibi Netanyahu. But seriously folks. . 

    Anyway, the link is to a Reuter's piece reflecting background or sideline negotiations between coalition partners and Israel over "small print" matters, which is said to be a reflection of a material departure from Israel's formerly more hard-line stance.  And, of course, this is important from both a bargaining process perspective -- a not-so-uncommon indirectly related negotiations  with one or more interested third party -- and also \as a matter of fact, because through all of the politics and everything the P5-1 coalition understands very well that it is important to have at least tacit support from Israel and the Arab states going forward.  Some excerpts with my bolds:

    Almost lost in the prime minister's March 3 denunciations in Congress was a line urging U.S. President Barack Obama to seek a "better deal" that "Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally". 

    Pressed to elaborate, Netanyahu, who won a fourth term in Israel's March 17 election, told MSNBC in an interview two days later that Israel and like-minded Arab states might accede to Iran not giving up of all its uranium centrifuges.

    .  .  .

    The Israelis, who are not a party to the talks but have been heard out in Western capitals due to their fears of a nuclear-armed Iran and their threats - now looking increasingly hollow - to launch a unilateral war of last-resort, have made clear they want their foe left with much less. 

    But they have not presented a comprehensive counter-proposal, a reticence that one Israeli nuclear official told Reuters was designed to avoid providing a "bottom line" that negotiators might try to stretch in their talks with Iran.

    Instead, officials say, Israel has been challenging Western powers on specific details of a deal, such as strong technical safeguards and extending the breakout time.

    "We think to leave Iran one year from the bomb or 1.5 years is too dangerous because sooner or later they will dash to the bomb," Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu's point-man on Iran, told Reuters this week during a visit to Europe, where he conferred with French and British counterparts.

    P.S. Bonus Question: How will Israel react to the lack of a written framework agreement, if that does turn out to be the case?  

    Great overview by AP's Bradley Klapper of various complexities defining the Iran/US they seek to reach an historic agreement, including what is currently going on in Iraq and Yemen.  

    Edited bc I wanted to and forgot to include a small of portion of the linked-to article for context with my bolds:

    U.S. and Iranian diplomats gather at a Baroque palace in Europe, a historic nuclear agreement within reach. Over Iraq's deserts, their militaries fight a common foe. Leaders in Washington and Tehran, capitals once a million miles from each other in ideological terms, wrestle for the first time in decades with the notion of a rapprochement.

    Yet the old adversaries are locked in proxy war across an ever more volatile region. In Syria, the United States arms insurgents seeking to oust the Iran-backed government. In Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere, Iran supports militant groups determined to end Israel's existence. And now in Yemen, the U.S. is backing a military intervention by Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia against a Shiite rebellion aided by Iran.

    Nothing is simple amid the overlapping fault lines of Sunnis and Shiite, Arabs and Persians, Muslims and Jews, and the countless tribal affiliations that define that part of the world. And six years after President Barack Obama swept into office hoping to simplify America's role there by ending the long war in Iraq, engaging Iran and Syria and trying to advance a long-sought Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. involvement in the region — and its relationship with Iran — seem more complicated than ever.

    So Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond tells reporters that we should not expect a written agreement, but instead are working to prepare a narrative of the political framework agreed to by the parties.  Incredibly, Secretary Hammond suggests that a written agreement is too hard to put together, because once you put down one thing, you have to put down everything. . . .Well, Mr. Secretary, indeed, that's how it's generally done.  Incredible.  From the Foreign Policy piece I link to (my bolds):

    Instead of agreeing to a framework agreement by the March 31 deadline and then a final deal this summer, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that he wants a single deal at the end of the talks. That’s made it more difficult for Iranian negotiators to agree to specifics during the current talks, a point Hammond conceded on Friday.

    “The challenge is: as soon as you write anything down, you’ve got to write everything down,” he said.

    Still, Hammond said if the P5+1 produce an agreement, they’ll be able to sell the merits of a final deal to the world.

    “We envisage being able to deliver a narrative,” he said. “This will be a political statement, or perhaps political statements from the P5+1 and Iran which create enough momentum to make it clear that we’ve now got this boulder over the hill and we are into the detailed work to produce an agreement.”

    This is a very strange circumstance, if things turn out the way the Foreign Secretary anticipates they will.

    The link isn't working for me, Bruce.

    Sorry barefooted.  Think I've got it right now.

    And, on the other hand, Reuters reports that the parties are working to agree on language that would be included 2-3 page document that may or may not be signed, i.e. the kind of term sheet I wrote about above:

    There were discussions under way about whether to make the 2- or 3-page document public, but two officials said it would be released. It was expected that some details of the agreement would be kept confidential, officials noted.

    "The plan is for the 2-3 page (document) to be made public," one official said.

    Earlier a senior U.S. official said it was now time for Iran to make the necessary hard decisions to make a deal possible.

    If agreed, the document would cover key numbers for a future nuclear agreement between Iran and the six - such as the maximum number and types of uranium enrichment centrifuges Iran could operate, the size of uranium stockpiles it could maintain, types of atomic research and development it could undertake and details on lifting sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

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