Iran and six Western powers could reach a deal on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program well before the new July 1 deadline, experts told the Atlantic Council on December 2.
The P5+1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — and Iran last month extended their self-imposed November 24 deadline by seven months after failing to reach a deal to dismantle large parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
The new timeline sets two deadlines — March 1, 2015, for a political framework agreement, and July 1, 2015, for a final agreement.
The March 1 deadline is a sign that the Iranians want a framework deal before the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) on March 21, said Cornelius Adebahr, an associate in the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“[The Iranians] want at least some good news that they, hopefully, can present to their people,” he said.
“There is some hope, at least on the Iranian side, to be able close a deal earlier,” he added.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in his first public remarks since the talks concluded, expressed such optimism in noting that the nuclear negotiations were within reach of a “successful end.”
“In the past ten years of talks we haven’t been this close to resolving the nuclear issue,” Zarif said, according to the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).
Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center who moderated the panel discussion at the Atlantic Council, said Iranian officials believe that it is not in their interests to prolong the negotiations.
Several Republican members of Congress responded to the failure to reach a deal on November 24 with calls to impose more sanctions on Iran. Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte also insisted that Congress approve any final deal with Iran. Republicans will take full control of Congress next year, potentially giving them greater leverage over the negotiations process and the final agreement.
Even with a Republican majority in Congress, Clifford Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, said additional sanctions are not imminent and that the threat from Congress at this point is “overstated.”
“The Republicans will have about fifty-two firm yesses [in favor of sanctions in the US Senate] … that means they need eight Democrats for cloture and for passage of the bill. They can probably get that,” Kupchan said. “That means they need fifteen hard Democratic votes” to reach a veto-proof sixty-seven votes “and I know the Republicans don’t think they can get that. So something has got to change in order for them to able to impose a new sanctions bill,” he added.
Yet, support in Congress for additional sanctions might grow without a framework agreement by the March 1 deadline, and congressional patience will certainly run out if no deal is reached by July, he said.
Kupchan and Adebahr said the current sanctions regime imposed by the US and European Union is quite robust and in no danger of eroding.
The EU would not do anything to ease sanctions on Iran in the absence of a political framework agreement, said Adebahr. “As long as the US can hold firm to its side of the deal, the Europeans are going to stick to it,” he added.
Eric Ferrari, an attorney at Ferrari & Associates, P.C., who works on issues related to US trade sanctions, said Congress could attach provisions into spending bills that may have negative consequences for a deal with Iran.
“Congress, although doing quite a bit of saber rattling here, is also conscious of the fact that their actions — what they say or what they do — can sink a deal,” Ferrari said.
US President Barack Obama is not the only one facing domestic pressure over the nuclear deal. Iran’s political leadership is constrained by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has yet to signal his willingness to make the kind of cuts in Iran’s enrichment ability that the West has demanded to seal a deal.
“We don’t have the political will yet in Iran….On the US side, Obama is really hemmed in mostly by the Congress,” said Kupchan.
“So there is a political will versus a domestic constraints problem and I think that led to a roadblock,” he added.
Slavin said many Iranians were disappointed that a comprehensive agreement was not reached last month. “The government does pay a price… There is a limit to what extent Khamenei can be out of sync with the sentiment of his own people,” she said.