Iran Negotiations 101: What Does It All Mean?

By:  Natalie Burikhanov

Source: flickr/European External Action Service

Iran is often seen as a menacing foe in the Middle East, and its nuclear program has long been a thorn in the side of international peace and stability. On Tuesday, July 14th, the US and four other countries signed a nuclear arms control agreement with Iran which is historic in its level of diplomatic cooperation. But what does it all mean and what will happen next? Already, articles and news cycles have been dedicated to the negotiations, ranging from celebrations to stern condemnation to doomsday predictions. Ultimately, the P5+1 nuclear agreement will delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon by a decade, and sanctions relief will provide a much-needed level of economic relief to the Iranian people. However, the indirect consequences could affect a number of conflicts in the Middle East, and many nuanced political factors will determine the severity of these outcomes. So what’s next and what are the good, the bad, and the ugly of the negotiations?

The Basics of the P5+1 and Iran Talks

Nuclear negotiations with Iran have been occurring for over a decade, and the deal struck on Tuesday was a historic accomplishment for all those involved. Nuclear negotiations with Iran began in 2003 with the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, known as the E3. In 2006, the group had expanded to include the permanent five members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council plus Germany, effectively referred to as the P5+1. Together, the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany attempted to craft a nuclear arms control agreement with Iran that would prevent Iran from creating or obtaining a nuclear weapon. The United States, the EU, and other countries imposed sanctions against Iranian companies and individuals associated with developing heavy water reactors, uranium conversion plants, and research which could lead to a nuclear weapon. Beginning in December 2008, the P5+1 adopted four UN Security Council resolutions which introduced and increased further sanctions against Iran. These economic sanctions have been a severe blow to the Iranian economy: US sanctions alone cut Iranian oil exports in half and contributed to a national loss of $40 billion each year. Iran has long maintained that such sanctions are harsh and unnecessary, claiming that the country has not sought to develop a nuclear weapon. Rather, Iran has insisted that it only enriches nuclear material for civilian purposes, as granted to members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Negotiations took a positive turn in 2013 with the election of reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani as the President of Iran. In February of that year, the P5+1 held talks with Iran in Kazakhstan while the EU served as a mediator. Following several more rounds of negotiations, the P5+1 and Iran reached an interim agreement, called the Joint Plan of Action, at the end of the year which would lay the groundwork for a future concrete deal. A deadline was set for November 2014 to finalize the negotiations, but despite monthly meetings, the parties remained hung up on nuclear infrastructure details, and the deadline was extended to July 2015. When the group met again in March 2015, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the negotiators made a breakthrough, and on April 2, 2015, the Lausanne framework was released, agreeing to lift sanctions if Iran would make drastic cuts to its nuclear program. With a deadline quickly approaching on July 1st to finalize the deal, the parties were divided on a few key issues: domestic opposition in the US, American concern about lifting UN sanctions without the assurance of Chinese and Russian support for re-imposition if needed, Iran’s desire for immediate sanctions relief, and an effort by Russia, China, and Iran to lift the UN arms embargo against Iran. Ultimately, the deadline was missed and the talks extended.

After nearly twenty months of negotiations, the talks ended on July 14, 2015 in Vienna and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed. In this agreement, Iran will receive a gradual lifting of sanctions in exchange for:

  • Two-thirds of its centrifuges removed
  • Significant reduction in its stockpile of enriched uranium
  • Ceasing the use of advanced centrifuges for a decade
  • Unlimited UN inspector access to nuclear sites of concern
  • Delaying the building of a heavy water reactor for 15 years
  • Removing spent fuel from the country
  • Limiting and modifying the heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak

The US also agreed to lift the UN arms embargo against Iran in five years and ease the embargo against ballistic missiles after eight years if Iran remains fully compliant. The US reserved the right to re-impose American sanctions against Iran and to use military force in the event of Iranian defection from the deal and pursuit of a nuclear weapon. In regards to UN sanctions, the agreement dictates that a panel of the P5+1 and Iran meet if violations are believed to have occurred, and a simple majority vote will decide if UN Security Council sanctions are to be reinstated. Under this agreement, an Iranian nuclear weapon has been delayed by up to a decade, and Iran receives billions of dollars in sanctions relief. The deal holds the possibility for a cooperative and internationally engaged Iran, and this, in itself, is a massive achievement.

Now What?

With the Iranian nuclear agreement finally reached, the international community is anxiously waiting for the crucial next steps in the deal. First and foremost, the US Congress must vote whether or not to pass the agreement. Under the recently enacted Corker-Cardin Bill, Congress is allowed to “review, vote on, and potentially reject an Iran nuclear agreement.” Under this new law, the Obama administration was required to submit the deal to both chambers by July 9th, upon which Congress would have 30 days to review and choose whether or not to support it. Because the deal was brokered on July 14th, Congress now has an extended period of 60 days to review the agreement. However, it is unlikely Congress will fail to pass the deal. President Obama has already stated that he would use the presidential veto against a joint resolution of disapproval from Congress; a veto requires a 2/3 majority to overturn, and 151 House Democrats have already pledged their support to the President, preventing the opposition from reaching this quota. Furthermore, if the US was forced to back out of the deal due to Congress, it would heighten the risk for Iran to actively seek a nuclear program and/or increase the possibility of military conflict in the region. That being said, many influential members of Congress have expressed their discontent for the deal, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stating that the deal was “built too much on hope – on the belief that somehow the Iranian government will fundamentally change in the next several years.” While the deal will likely pass through Congress, US relations with Iran will probably remain tense in the coming years with weak American domestic support.

The international community will also be anxiously waiting for the aftermath of sanctions relief in Iran. The country has suffered immensely from various sanctions, and the economy has struggled to keep up with the demands of its large population and state needs. While Iranian assets are unlikely to be unfrozen in the coming months, it is possible that once they are, the assets alone could free up $100 billion to $150 billion. Iranian President Rouhani has indicated that he would like to use much of this newly-accessed revenue to assist domestic needs, and the world will be watching to see if this comes to fruition. The sanctions relief will have a large impact on the energy potential of Iran, which is the world’s third-largest natural gas producer and has one of the world’s largest oil yields. With sanctions removed from much of the energy industry, Iran’s production could have great impacts on things such as global oil price and European gas sources. Currently, about 16% of the EU’s natural gas supply comes from Russia byway of Ukraine (this natural gas is about 40% for Germany). Sanctions relief could usher in a new era for Iranian oil and natural gas, provide market access to millions of Iranians, and could engage Iran in the international economic system.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Deal         

It is impossible to predict the effects of the Iranian nuclear agreement: scenarios range from best case scenarios of restored diplomatic relations with Iran to doomsday beliefs that nuclear warfare is imminent. Ultimately, the Iranian deal will have little direct effect on current events, government regimes, or conflict. However, the fallout from the deal will impact a variety of large and small issues indirectly, and response to the agreement could shape future decisions in key areas.

The Good: A rare success for diplomacy.

The art and outcomes of effective diplomacy often go unnoticed and unpraised, and the decades of skillful work that went into the Iranian negotiations will be lost to historical accounts and diplomacy programs. But an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue is a rare visible success for diplomacy. Through coercive tactics like economic sanctions and international isolation and the nuances of political maneuvering and negotiation, the P5+1 were able to delay Iranian production of a nuclear weapon by at least a decade and pave the way for better cooperation with a state which has generally been considered obstinate and a pariah. In order for the deal to successfully operate, Iran and the US will need to cooperate on a variety of international and regional issues. In fact, several experts believe that the world could see a senior US official visiting Iran by 2016. This newfound cooperation could carry over into a partner for peace in the Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemeni conflicts.

There is also the possibility that reformists like President Rouhani could gain leverage in Iran, which would strengthen the likelihood of a more internationally engaged Iran. While the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is often polarizing and extreme in his rhetoric pertaining to Iran and the international scene, the nuclear deal had to have been concluded with his approval. Many civilians in Iran support the deal, and President Rouhani will likely enjoy a surge in popularity following the benefits of sanctions relief; this could carry over into greater support for other reformists, particularly as the young adult voting bloc ages.

The Bad: Everything else remains the same

Source: flickr/Desmond Kavanagh

There are several potential benefits to the deal with Iran, but in many ways, things largely remain the same. As has been stated throughout the negotiations and in the days following its conclusion, the deal was singularly focused on nuclear arms control with Iran, and President Obama and his administration have asserted that the agreement was “purely transactional” and not “contingent on Iran changing its behavior.” That, in itself, is a problem for the region and the international community: Iran remains an aggressive authoritarian state who is actively involved in human rights abuses and sponsoring terrorism throughout the Middle East. This deal, while noble in its nuclear arms control objectives, fails to address other pressing concerns about Iran which are causing alarm for states in the region. The US has strained its relationships with its Middle Eastern allies over the deal, although this could be a short-term consequence. However, it speaks to the threat that Iran poses to the neighborhood, even in the face of nuclear arms control. Israel has been an outspoken opponent of the agreement, with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it “a historic mistake.” Tzipi Livni, a prominent politician in Israel, said, “Iran is getting legitimacy despite being a state involved in the region. The agreement is terrible not only because of what it includes but also what it does not do.” Many Arab Gulf states also have misgivings about the deal because, without sanctions, Iran could expand its reach in the Middle East financially, politically, religiously, and physically. The deal does push back the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon by at least a decade, but again, Iran will remain the same nuclear threshold state in a decade. For these reasons, the deal has been called the “least-worst option.” The US made great strides diplomatically and in regards to nuclear arms control, but it did so while offending its allies in the region and offering a sense of legitimacy to a regime which remains a grave offender of international norms and which has little incentive to reform.

The Ugly: Could it be the spark in the tinderbox?

It is unlikely that any large-scale military conflict will directly result from the nuclear deal, no matter if it is Israeli response, US intervention, or Iranian nuclear warfare. However, the Middle East has been a highly conflict-ridden region for several decades, and three states are currently on the verge of collapse. The unintended, indirect consequences of the P5+1 negotiations have the potential to be a proverbial spark in the tinderbox which could engulf the whole region in conflict. Iran’s active involvement in state-sponsored terrorism and its long feud with Saudi Arabia are integral factors in the region; the deal has the potential to affect these current dynamics and have massive spillover effects.

Despite the fact that President Rouhani has expressed his intentions to disperse Iran’s sanctions relief among civilian needs, portions of the country’s newfound funds will undoubtedly be funneled into various terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. Ayatollah Khamenei will likely dedicate portions of state revenue toward the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is active in various conflicts in the region, including Syria. Iran is also a large financial supporter of Hezbollah, a militant Shiite group active in campaigns against Israel and decades of conflict in the region. Iran is notorious for financing and conducting proxy wars throughout the Middle East byway of skilled militia and terrorist connections. Rather than embracing cooperation with the onset of the deal, Iran could continue its behavior, empowered by sanctions relief, unfrozen assets, and a sense of international standing.

All of these factors could be compounded by escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have long battled each other for influence in the region and within Islam: Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of the Sunni Muslim world and a champion of the Arab people, while Iran holds onto its importance for Shiite Muslims and boasts of the Persian legacy and lineage. The two have competed through soft and hard diplomacy, and as the “Shia Crescent” (an area of Shia majority in the Middle East spreading from Iran to Syria) has erupted in conflict, both have been vying for influence in the political vacuum. When the initial P5+1 negotiations began, the Middle East looked different. Syria was not lost to years of civil war, Iraq wasn’t crumbling, and the so-called Islamic State was not tearing apart the Middle East and North Africa. However, as war emerged and political dynamics have changed, Iran has become increasingly militant outside of its borders, and Saudi Arabia is beginning to launch military operations in the region. In order to gain popular support among the embattled peoples, the two states have been fueling sectarianism in the Middle East. If Saudi Arabia perceives that Iran has been strengthened and has become more of a threat in the wake of the nuclear negotiations, it could directly challenge Iran and its influence in these conflicts. As these two large powers in the Middle East come head-to-head, proxy wars are likely to increase, conflict is compounded, and the region’s myriad of violent outbursts will become more interconnected and involve the hands of many states.

The Iranian nuclear negotiations will go down in history as a victory for diplomacy, but its outcomes will also shape history. It is unlikely that the agreement will usher in direct change in Iranian politics or will result in war. However, the indirect and unintended consequences of the deal could affect ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and disrupt the balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. More than likely, though, things will largely remain the same, and that could be the worst outcome from the negotiations.


BurihanovNatalie Burikhanov is an M.A. Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce where she is studying Diplomacy and International Development. Her subjects of interest include women’s issues, international institutions, and the regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. Upon completion of her degree, Natalie hopes to work in policy and advocacy efforts to address violence against women.

You can contact her at natalie.burikhanov@gmail.com or check out her LinkedIn profile.

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