Obama may be on the cusp of his 'legacy-setting' foreign policy achievement

Kerry, IranAssociated PressNegotiations are ongoing.

It took 18 months of often-tortured diplomacy, but Iran and a US-led group of countries (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, called the P5+1) may be just days away from signing a “political agreement” to determine limitations on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

The period after the signing of the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva in November of 2013 hasn’t gone the way many supporters of the negotiating process thought it would.

In the 18 months since then, Iran exceeded negotiated oil export caps, grew its stockpile of 5% enriched uranium, which has gone through around half the centrifuge revolutions needed to reach weapons grade, by 11%; fed uranium into an advanced centrifuge in violation of the JPOA’s terms, and failed to answer 11 of 12 questions international monitors posed about their nuclear weaponization research.

Iranian Hassan Rouhani also ended up being less of a reformer than many had hoped.

But those challenges have largely been overcome and the sides are reportedly close to finalising an agreement that the Obama administration views in historical terms and hopes could help could have a broadly positive impact on a violent and fracturing Middle East.

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognise that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” an anonymous administration official told Politico.

Only one thing about this statement is certain: the nuclear agreement will be legacy-setting, for better or worse.

It’s also coming at the price of additional concessions, two of which have been reported in recent days as the talks hurdle towards their possible conclusion.

On March 25th, the Wall Street Journal reported that the P5+1 was backing off of a longstanding demand that Iran address the IAEA’s 12 queries regarding weaponization, which were first posed in 2011. Instead, “Under the new plan, Tehran wouldn’t be expected to immediately clarify all the outstanding questions,” while “A full reckoning of Iran’s past activities would be demanded in later years as part of a nuclear deal that is expected to last at least 15 years.”

Critics claim that this concession makes it more difficult to establish a baseline for inspectors to determine the status of Iran’s weaponization efforts. Without a starting point, verification becomes much less effective, since monitors wouldn’t have a sense of Iran’s actual technological progress, and therefore a more speculative sense of what they’re even supposed to be monitoring or looking for.

This might be a minor concession — except that no one is entirely sure of the state of Iran’s weaponization program to begin with. According to an IAEA report obtained by the New York Times, the international monitor couldn’t conclude that all nuclear material in Iran was being used for peaceful purposes.

Parchin IranAPParchin

And while a 2012 Israeli intelligence assessment obtained and published by Al Jazeera said that Iran had no active weapons program, it noted that a research group suspected of carrying out weaponization work at the Parchin military facility in 2003 had been kept intact.

This had been accomplished through a special organisation “established for the purposes of preserving the technological ability and the joint organizational framework of Iranian scientists in the area of R&D of nuclear weapons, and for the purpose of retaining the skills of the scientists” in order to “allow renewal of the activity necessary to produce weapons immediately when the Iranian leadership decides to do so.”

The second concession was reported by the Associated Press the next day and seems to have been the last remaining obstacle to a final agreement. According to the AP, the P5+1 will allow Iran to operate several hundred uranium enrichment centrifuges at Fordow, a facility outside of Qom encased within a mountain and considered impervious to outside conventional weapons attack.

Under the agreement, the centrifuges could only be used to enrich germanium, zinc, and other non-fissile materials. But the centrifuges are identical in design to those used for uranium enrichment, and can quickly be retooled for uranium enrichment.

Critics are concerned that Fordow could be used to perfect advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges using uranium stand-ins and in a location secure from outside attack.

IRAN FORDOWREUTERSMap of Iran locating the site of a suspected bunker that Iran may be moving its uranium enrichment facilities.

Fordow’s history has also raised alarm about its acceptability as a location for operating nuclear enrichment centrifuges.

The site is a Revolutionary Guards site that was concealed from international monitors and the international community more generally until its existence was revealed by western intelligence services and the IAEA in 2009.

The US intially wanted Fordow closed, and then insisted on it merely being shut down.

After the JPOA was signed, it was hoped the Iranians would agree to have Fordow converted into a research facility. But this latest concession shows that the P5+1 believes it’s worth letting Iran continue to use it for non-uranium enrichment and centrifuge operation if that enables a final deal.

Critics of a deal aren’t so sure: As Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies told a March 27th conference call, under the proposal “Iran still gets to operate 500 centrifuges in a hardened site on an IRGC base buried under a mountain.”

An agreement this weekend — even if it’s just an oral agreement that serves as a “narrative”   — would have immediate political consequences.

On March 26, the Senate unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the president to reimpose sanctions if Iran were found to be cheating on a future agreement. It’s also possible that Congress could pass laws that compel the administration to publicize the entirety of the final agreement, if one is signed before a June 30th deadline.

While Obama has committed to making the deal’s contents public, most recently in a March 24th press conference, the implementation agreement of the JPOA can currently only be viewed by individuals who hold a federal security clearance of “secret”-level or higher.

Kerry zarifREUTERS/Evan Vucci/PoolU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif discuss seating arrangements for a meeting during a new round of nuclear negotiations in Montreux March 2, 2015.

If Congress considers any deal to be especially egregious, it could pass binding laws that impose additional sanctions if there’s no agreement past the June 30th deadline, or vote to secure any agreement with an authorization for the use of military force should the accords break down.

One thing Congress can’t do is block a deal entirely — the agreement won’t be submitted as a treaty, which means the Senate can’t vote it down.

And that means that the Obama administration could potentially be just hours away from a “legacy-setting” foreign policy achievement — although there’s some emerging doubt that a deal will be completed over the weekend, and signs that Iran is remaining inflexible. It took deep US concessions and sorting through over a year and a half of mixed messages from Tehran.

But whatever the immediate and broader historical consequences may be, the two sides may be within striking distance of a crucial “yes” on the way to what President Barack Obama and the P5+1 hope will be a final resolution to an over decade-long nuclear standoff. 

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