The United States and its international partners, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, collectively knows at the P5+1, are seeking to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. The official deadline for that is Tuesday.
This final round of talks began Saturday morning in Vienna with Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The other ministers trickled in over the weekend.
Here’s a primer on the main issues and questions still confronting the parties.
Is Tuesday a hard deadline?
Not really. June 30 is the deadline given in the interim agreement, or Joint Plan of Action, reached in November 2014. But the more important deadline is July 9. If a deal is not reached by then, a congressional review period for evaluating the deal doubles from 30 to 60 days.
Can the parties reach a deal by Tuesday?
No. The sides have acknowledged that they likely won’t be done by tomorrow.
Western diplomats and U.S. officials involved in the talks said it has been a challenge to get the Iranian delegation to focus on details up until now, because they had been waiting for the ministers to arrive in Vienna. Naturally, big decisions aren’t ever made until the ministers join the talks.
Back in Washington, Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called June 30 an “artificial deadline” and said he urged Kerry to ignore that date if it meant a better deal could be reached. His comments came after Kerry said the U.S. wasn’t “fixated” on Iran accounting for its past nuclear work. Corker, a key figure in brokering a compromise with the White House for Congress to review the deal, voiced concern that the U.S. is caving in a rush to get a deal by June 30.
Now Kerry and a few other ministers are saying it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the talks ran a few days past the deadline, just as they did in Lausanne when a framework deal wasn’t reached until April 2, two days after a March 30 deadline.
Sources said they expect the talks to last at least through Friday. If a deal isn’t done by then, it’s possible the ministers leave at that point, allow the delegations to continue negotiations and come back after the weekend to try and close it by July 9. There is a strong desire by all sides to get this done before the congressional review period doubles.
What if a deal isn’t reached by July 9?
If the negotiations haven’t resolved the outstanding issues by this date, the parties can keep going a few days longer, extend by a few months or simply give up, pack up and go home. The sides have said that there won’t be another formal extension, and have indicated that no deal is also a possible outcome. How exactly the parties decide to proceed after July 9, sources said, will depend on how much progress has made, whether they believe a deal is even possible or whether extra time would even make a difference.
Sources said that if a deal can’t be reached by July 9, it is possible the sides keep the interim agreement in effect for a period of time and try again down the road.
What are the outstanding issues?
According to a senior U.S. official, “Some of the trickiest issues in the negotiations at this point are the ones you’d expect: the timing and pace of sanctions relief, for example, and details about access and transparency.”
Specifically, one of the most sensitive outstanding issues is access by inspectors of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to Iranian nuclear sites, including military ones.
The current obstacle is less about Iran making a “confession” about its past efforts to develop a nuclear weapon – despite Iran having previously committed to cooperating with the IAEA on lingering questions about its past activity – than it is about the current state of any military dimension to its program, as well as whether Iran is complying with the deal going forward.
World powers are leaving it up to the IAEA to determine what access it needs to produce conclusions about the program. In order to make those conclusions about the present and the future, however, the agency will need access to individuals and sites that were used for military purposes in the past. But the P5+1 is sticking to the principle that the IAEA has to have the access it needs.
And what about sanctions relief for Iran?
The lifting of sanctions is another major outstanding issue. The negotiations are centering on mechanisms for the timing and phasing of sanctions relief.
Sources said that EU sanctions would be lifted in accordance with European Council regulations. They still need to agree on what gets lifted when and how to structure the “snap back” provisions – re-imposing sanctions if Iran violates the deal.
U.S. sanctions will be suspended at first, rather than lifted. The U.S. is still looking at which sanctions should be suspended as part of the deal and which will remain in effect. There are many, many layers of U.S. sanctions against Iran – some of which are considered nuclear-related and can be lifted with the deal, while others related to terrorism and human rights will remain in effect. But some sanctions have elements of both nuclear and terrorism/human rights, and those seem to be the most contentious.
UN Security Council sanctions will be lifted in phases according to UNSC resolutions, and some according to IAEA certification. There will be a snapback mechanism here, too. It seems likely that a new umbrella resolution spelling this out will fold all of the existing resolutions into it.
There are some other remaining items, but sources said they are closer to being worked out.
For one, Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium: When Iran said it would not send its stockpile out of the country, it caused a lot of commotion. But sources said they really aren’t wedded to that. Perhaps Iran keeps it in country but dilutes it and makes it unusable – a process called “downblending.” That still remains to be seen, but as long as there is a mechanism for dealing with it and verifying that it is not usable, the world powers seem to think a solution can be found.
For another, the Arak heavy water reactor: Under the political framework deal in April, Iran agreed to alter two of its major facilities – its underground facility at Fordow and its heavy water reactor at Arak. The agreement states that Fordow will be used as a research center and that Iran will not enrich uranium at Fordow for at least 15 years.
The political agreement reached in Lausanne calls for Arak, which the world feared could be ultimately used to produce radioactive plutonium and give Iran another pathway to the bomb, to be redesigned and only operate on a limited basis. The details of that reconfiguration are still being negotiated, although sources say they are making progress.
A senior administration official expressed optimism last week that the remaining issues can be resolved. “We can truly see a path forward that gets us to a very good agreement here. We know what the pieces of it are,” the official said. “We believe there are technical solutions for every issue that’s on the table, although we also appreciate there are some tough political decisions” that have to be made.
Is Iran ready to make a deal?
Until now the U.S. and its partners have gotten the sense that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on whether Iran makes a deal, has been supportive of a deal. Although he hedges his bets and speaks with tough rhetoric, he has generally supported Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts – even standing by Zarif when he was harshly attacked in parliament.
But after the Iranian parliament voted last week to deny international inspectors access to Iranian military sites, Khamenei has seemed to harden his stance.
In a speech Tuesday, he said he would not agree to a long-term freeze on Iran’s nuclear activity and also ruled out inspections at military sites. He also repeated a longstanding demand that all economic sanctions be lifted immediately once a deal is reached and denied the IAEA the right to make the ultimate conclusions on whether Iran was complying with the deal.
Clearly this is all at odds with the April 2 political framework deal. U.S. and Western diplomats said they are trying to determine how his comments will affect the Iranian negotiating team once the ministers are at the table and whether this was merely for public domestic consumption. One source remarked, “The similarities between the domestic political difficulties the Iranians and Americans are facing are getting closer every day!”
Would a deal be made public?
U.S. officials and diplomats involved in the talks said they expect both the text of the agreement and the technical annexes to be made public. But one official briefing reporters offered an important caveat: There could be “attachments and other documents that will be classified.” That hasn’t been decided, but the official said everything would be shared with Congress (which in effect likely means making it public because of the high probability it would be leaked).
What’s tricky is that both sides need to show a victory with a deal. So it is possible that there could be an agreement with Iran to keep some of the details classified, like they did with the JPOA interim agreement, to help both sides save face.
Are the critics satisfied?
As the negotiations approach the deadline, some in the United States are also intensifying their criticism against the deal. One goal of the agreement is to ensure that the time it will take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb is increased from its current three months now at least 12 months. Some critics argue the deal does not do that, in part because Iran will retain a small enrichment program and thousands of centrifuges, though many leading technical experts say it does.