Everything You Need To Know For The Iran Talks
Have no idea what's going on in Vienna at the moment? Have no fear, this primer will give you a break down of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1.
Who are the P5+1?
The P5+1 is the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council--China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States--plus Germany that negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. Negotiations between the six powers and Iran commenced in 2006, but were initially started in 2003 by the EU3: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The P5+1 is referred to as the EU3+3 or E3/EU+3 by the Europeans.
How did Iran's nuclear program start?
In 1957, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signeda civil nuclear cooperation agreement under the guise of the IAEA's Atoms for Peace. This move commenced Iran's nuclear program and with the help of the United States, provided the country with enriched uranium to eventually wean them off of oil and gas dependence. The strong relations between the U.S. and Iran deteriorated during the 1979 revolution when Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, taking hostage 54 diplomats for 444 days. The crisis caused the United States to sever ties with its once Middle Eastern ally and pull its support of Iran's nuclear program.
A brief timeline*
August 4, 2013: Hassan Rouhani is inaugurated as the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
September 28, 2013: After President Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama makes a brief phone call to him, the first high-level contact between the countries in three decades.
November 24, 2013: Iran and the P5+1 agree on an interim nuclear deal known as the Joint Plan of Action. It is the first step in a six-month process that aims at alleviating sanctions on Iran and constraints on the country's nuclear program. (Read the details of the JPA)
July 19, 2014: Unable to meet the July 20 deadline due to disagreements on certain aspects of Iran's nuclear program, the talks are extended until November 24.
November 24, 2014: The deadline for a nuclear deal.
*For a more comprehensive timeline on Iran's nuclear program dating back to the commencement of nuclear negotiations in 2003, please read my timeline for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
What's at stake for Iran, the United States, and other players?
Aside from an IAEA and P5+1 stamped and approved Iranian nuclear program, one of the most crucial aspects of a nuclear deal is a thawing of 35 years of hostility between Iran and the United States. With a change in relations, the two countries could work together on other important regional security issues such as the Islamic State's presence in Syria and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and dealing with the Taliban.
While 'smart' sanctions on Iran are meant to target the Iranian government's activities and officials, it still has an impact on its population. Banking and oil sanctions have had a major economic impact on the Iranian people. Not only has it caused hyperinflation, but black market sales due to shortages, as well as a surge in crime and corruption. With the removal of various sanctions, this can deeply improve Iran's economy, in addition to the standards of living of the Iranian people. On the international front, with the lifting of sanctions, Iran is a gold mine for investment opportunities for everything from automobiles, electronics, minerals, to oil.
Why is Israel concerned?
Although Tehran and Tel Aviv shared quiet relations under the Shah and a mutual interest in the destruction of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iran's denial of Israel's right to exist profoundly changed the terrain between the two countries. Since the 1990s, Israel is concerned that Iran is on the course to building nuclear weapons, or may already have them in their possession, and isn't afraid to use them, despite there being no significant evidence. Over the past two decades, different officials in the Israeli government, particularly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reiterate Iran is months or years away (they provided numerous timelines) from building a nuclear weapon.
Saudi Arabia shares Israel's concerns with Iran. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-dominated country and sees Shiite-dominated Iran as a regional threat for Islamic hegemony in the region, as exemplified by the ongoing proxy war in Syria. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is worried the United States would reshuffle its alliances in the Middle East and build closer ties with Iran at Saudi Arabia's expense.
Who are the other objectors?
In the West, there is a shared fear amongst a minority that Iran's end game is to develop nuclear weapons--members of Congress echoed this sentiment for years. With a Republican Senate majority, this view will become more frequent, making it difficult to reach a deal in the future if November 24 flops. Amongst those leading the conversation on more sanctions and a potential airstrike on Iran are Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill), John McCain (R-AZ), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
While President Obama has his own opposition at home, President Rouhani shares similar domestic opposition as well. The hardliners in factions of the Iranian government such as the Majlis (Parliament) and the paramilitary wing known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) do not share the Iranian president's enthusiasm for a nuclear deal. With the occasional threat in the Persian Gulf in the form of U.S. Naval ships, hardliners find it hard to trust their 35-year-old enemy, the United States. Hawkish elements in the U.S. and Iranian governments share a mutual aversion for a deal because they do not trust one another and fear rapprochement between the former allies.
Contrary to the rightwing sentiments in Iran and the United States, polls conducted in both countries demonstrate the majority of their populations are in favor of a nuclear deal. According to a poll conducted by the University of Maryland, 61 percent of Americans believe the United States should "continue to pursue a long-term agreement that limits Iran's enrichment of uranium." Similarly, 79 percent of Iranians support a nuclear deal, while 70 percent see dismantlement of a significant portion of Iran's centrifuges as unacceptable.
What's on the table right now?
According to a recent dispatch from Vienna, Iran wants to freeze the expansion of its centrifuges and keep its 10,000 operational centrifuges (A centrifuge is an apparatus that enriches uranium). However, the P5+1 wants to cut the number of centrifuges by over half to about 2,000 to 4,000. Another issue on the table is that Iran insists on having fast relief from all sanctions. However, the powers want to waive only some of the sanctions whilst keeping UN, banking, and energy sanctions in tact until the deal terminates to ensure Iran complies. There are other points of contention as well including allegations of possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program and the length of the new deal.
What happens if talks fail?
If a nuclear deal fails to come to fruition, efforts would be made by the United States, specifically Congress, to isolate Iran further from the Western world. Hardliners would make the case that Iran never should have negotiated with the West in the first place and Rouhani would lose leverage. The country would continue to run its nuclear program and likely speed up uranium enrichment. The West would implement new crippling sanctions on Iran, further devastating its economy. While Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu previously spoke of airstrikes on Iran, he recently took a softer tone in favor of current events. Israel would resort to its previous stance and there is a possibility that it could conduct airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, if not on its own, then with the help of the United States. Iran would retaliate not only militarily, but also with the closing of the Straight of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, sending oil prices skyrocketing. The turn of events would cause a full-fledged war in the Middle East.
What happens if talks succeed?
Through a nuclear deal, expect Iran to abide by international standards for its nuclear program. The lifting of sanctions would bring Iran back into the international community and more relations with the West. Iran could help with other regional issues significantly. The Iranian economy would improve and open up a new market for trade and investment. More importantly, it would put the hawks in check on both the Iranian side of the spectrum and the United States, as economic cooperation would strengthen both sides' interest in sustaining peaceful relations. (Read this realistic scenario of what a year after a nuclear deal looks like)
- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the United Nations body that oversees nuclear programs across the globe and ensures their peaceful nature. Established in 1957 "in response to the deep fears and expectations resulting from the discovery of nuclear energy," it keeps tabs on countries like Iran through nuclear inspections.
- Yukiya Amano is the Director General of the IAEA. Controversy surrounded the Japanese Director General when Wikileaks revealed cables that said he was "solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision" pertaining to Iran's nuclear program.
- Catherine Ashton is the EU foreign policy chief. Despite her term coming to an end on October 31st, diplomats claim Ashton will stay on the nuclear negotiations beyond the November 24 deadline, if necessary.
- John Kerry is the United States Secretary of State. Kerry's 2004 run as the democratic candidate for president demonstrated his interest in Iranian affairs early on. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he dealt with Iran and nuclear nonproliferation. (Random fact: His son-in-law is Iranian-American)
- Mohammad Javad Zarif is the Foreign Minister of Iran. Zarif is well-groomed in Western politicking with a PhD from the University of Denver, tenure as Iran's permanent representative at the United Nations during 2002-2007, and a Rolodex of connections to former and current U.S. officials from his time in United States.
- Laurent Fabius is the Foreign Minister of France. Last November, every power minus one agreed to a nuclear deal: France. Fabius insisted on tighter terms for Iran to abide by. It was a close call, but Fabius finally joined the majority. With the November 24 deadline, France's hawkish stance could prove to be problematic again.
- Sergei Lavrov is the Foreign Minister of Russia. Not only do Moscow and Tehran share good ties, Russia built Bushehr, Iran's first nuclear power plant. The Russian government supports Iran's right to nuclear energy and just signed an agreement to not only build eight new power plants, but also provide Tehran with the fuel rods to run them.
- Philip Hammond is the Foreign Secretary of Britain. Tehran and London's relations suffered since the attacking of the British Embassy by the Basij in 2011. Since Rouhani came to power in 2013, talks of the Iranian and British embassies opening in host countries have painted a positive outlook for relations.
- Frank-Walter Steinmeier is the Foreign Minister of Germany. Interestingly, West Germany was one of the countries that set up the infrastructure of Iran's nuclear program under the Shah. However, after 1979 it slowly backed away from its obligations even though the Shah largely paid for it all.