The completion last week of the framework phase of the P5+1 coalition's nuclear negotiations with Iran presents an opportunity to take stock of where the parties are and what to expect over the next few months leading up to the deadline for the final phase of negotiations now set for June 30th. This analysis looks forward to the extent possible and amounts to my humble attempt to focus on what we might anticipate to see in negotiations and my even more humble recommendations to those who know far more about the substance of these talks than I would ever claim to have. Much of what I discuss below is addressed in some of my previous posts addressing these negotiations.
First, and looking at the various options at this point, I can think of no good faith reason to terminate negotiations now. Whatever one thinks of the deal that appears to be shaping up, there is simply nothing to be gained, and a great deal to be lost, by cutting off the talks now. Ultimately, many tough and unresolved issues remain, such as, for example, the timing of sanctions relief for Iran and the nature and scope of the unprecedented intrusive inspections that is the cornerstone of verifying Iran's compliance with any agreement going forward. But these are not unknown issues, and the parties have negotiated about them and know the various arguments for and against very well. It is not a matter of time that separates the parties from an agreement; it is whether they can make the kinds of compromises that will facilitate a resolution.
Critics can fairly point out that the framework agreement we all expected to emerge from the interim negotiations is hardly an agreement. There is no document signed by the various parties, and neither is there the kind of joint but unsigned "term sheet" that I wrote about and recommended here. Instead, we have separate statements of what was agreed to -- most importantly two separate statements issued by the Iranians and Americans, respectively, which as stated above reflect differences on important issues.
Still, notwithstanding the uncertainty created by separate statements, and despite the lack of any "framework agreement", the separate statements can still be utilized as a framework going forward. Indeed, while I wrote about the importance of setting forth the terms of agreement, and while I continue to believe that negotiations going forward are likely to be complicated by the failure to have a joint set of terms to guide the parties, the joint statements still provide the parties and their respective constituencies with enough information to determine where there is agreement and what remains to be decided. And, by any fair assessment, the parties remain far apart and have substantial work to do in the next three months.
Second, assuming that news reports and the conflicting statements of the Iranians and US accurately reflect remaining disputes between the parties -- a big "if" in negotiations at this stage because certain agreements might be cast by either party as disputed for political reasons at home -- prudent bargaining does not and should not lead either party to concede continued disagreement on any issue that it believes has already been resolved. For example, the US should not concede that the timing of sanctions relief remains in dispute. It should insist that there is agreement on phased relief, and it should bargain accordingly. So long as the issue remains on the table, and it is something that the other party does not want or can not accept, that party must pay with a concession of sufficient magnitude to get that issue off the table. Obviously, this is overly simplistic as issues are not negotiated in a vacuum. But it's a principle that any bargainer must keep in mind at all times, and it is something to look for in the reports that we will be getting as negotiations proceed -- as limited as they are of course because reports do not come from flies on the wall.
Third, I have previously written and continue to believe that it is absolutely critical that the U.S. use the time remaining to sell this deal to Congress, the American people, and our allies in the Gulf, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel. It appears that the president understands this and at least at this point appears to be taking a more conciliatory tone with his Republican critics at home and his critics abroad, and of course principally with Israel's reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This, of course, wil be no simple task, but as a matter of simple politics, it is both a domestic and international imperative.
Finally, the substance of the various remaining disputes between the parties warrants at least another separate post. But there is a deal to be had, the merits of which can and should be the subject of serious debate. Still, among the things that we do know is that an unprecedented inspection regimen appears to be a non-negotiable item on the part of the U.S. and its coalition partners. Here is the president on inspections from his statement announcing the completion of the framework phase (my bolds):
[T]his deal provides the best possible defense against Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon covertly -- that is, in secret. International inspectors will have unprecedented access not only to Iranian nuclear facilities, but to the entire supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program -- from uranium mills that provide the raw materials, to the centrifuge production and storage facilities that support the program. If Iran cheats, the world will know it. If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it. Iran’s past efforts to weaponize its program will be addressed. With this deal, Iran will face more inspections than any other country in the world.
Keep an eye and ear out for discussions about "snap inspections", and the right to inspect civilian versus military installations, and declared versus suspected undeclared sites. Absent agreement on verification issues there can be no deal, or no way to show that a long-term deal such as the one being contemplated can possibly work.
Bruce S. Levine
New York, New York