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01 Jul 2015 15:55
A security guard asks reporters to leave a room where US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) is meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd right) at a hotel in Vienna on July 1. (Carlos Barria, Reuters)
The negotiators at the Iran nuclear talks have given themselves yet another deadline by which to conclude an agreement, but this one is
different. Previously, target dates were self-imposed. But external actors hostile to an agreement have forced the latest one, July 7, on diplomats.
Congress has demanded to see a copy of the agreement by July
9, otherwise it has said it will take two months instead of one to review it.
Every extra day that the agreement remains in limbo will be a day on which its enemies in Washington,
Tehran and Israel are able to rally against it.
To be sure any agreement
is delivered to Congress on time and with the correct accompanying documentation,
the foreign ministers in Vienna have given themselves a deadline of two days
Diplomats from Iran and the six major powers at the talks
(the P5+1) are continuing as though this is doable. There has been such dramatic
progress, with so many previously intractable issues being resolved, that the
idea of stumbling now has become almost unthinkable, notwithstanding the predictable
tough rhetoric on all sides.
At the start of this week of extra time, one of the lead
Iranian negotiators, Iranian deputy foreign minister Majid Ravanchi, gave
an unusually detailed interview to Georgetown academic Ariane Tabatabai for
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, laying out the state of play as Tehran
One of the points to come out of the interview is that the
issue of inspections of Iranian sites does not seem to be a problem any more.
Ravanchi said Iran will pass into law the Additional Protocol (AP)
of its agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This allows for
military inspections on a managed basis, but he said it did not imply a
free-for-all for Western inspectors to drop in any time on military bases.
“The AP is about providing access to certain areas where
there is proof that there have been some alleged wrongdoings, the documents of
which should be given to the members. I don’t think there will be any problem
in the future on the implementation of the AP,” he said.
More difficult to hideIt is striking how much the language on this issue echoes
that of Western diplomats. Inspections will be carried out under the AP. Access
will be given to military sites when there are demonstrable grounds for
suspicion. A mechanism will be developed under the agreement to resolve
disputes. In principle, the IAEA will be allowed to go where it thinks it needs
to go, but timing can be negotiated. The thinking is that non-nuclear military
secrets can be moved around and hidden if the military is given a bit of
notice, but nuclear infrastructure is usually far more difficult to hide.
The more substantive issue to come out of the Ravanchi
interview is the centrality for the Iranians on the question of sanctions. Much
of the time since a framework was agreed in Lausanne in April has been taken up
adding language to the text to ensure that Iranian undertakings to reduce and
convert its nuclear programme are made watertight, partly with an eye to the critical scrutiny the deal will get in Congress.
The Iranians now want more time spent spelling out what Iran
will get in terms of sanctions relief in greater detail, so as to be sure of
what it will receive. This is how Ravanchi put it: “One other point I should emphasise here is that in Lausanne
we went into a lot of detail on the nuclear side. We also discussed sanctions,
but compared to what we achieved on the nuclear issue, we didn’t get as far.
So, this is now of paramount importance. And as I said, if we are going further
into detail on the nuclear issue, we need to also do the same on the sanctions
Some of the detail on sanctions relief involves questions
over what will happen to sanctions imposed on Iranian banks or other entities
by US states and cities, and what happens to banks or companies that are blacklisted
under nuclear-related and humans rights sanctions. The question is whether
the Iranian side’s demands are simply about clarity or if it wants to
change the Lausanne framework.
The Lausanne “parameters” as published by the US state
department say Iran gets sanctions relief after it has taken concrete
steps to reduce its nuclear programme: dismantling centrifuges, getting rid of
the low-enriched uranium stockpile and taking the core out of the Arak heavy
water reactor. This is the US version: “US and EU nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after
the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.
If at any time Iran fails to fulfil its commitments, these sanctions will snap
back into place.”
This is what Ravanchi said: “We can’t be expected to do our job, meet our obligation and then wait for the other side to meet theirs. So there needs to be some
proportionality here, and we have told our P5+1 partners that Iran is ready to
take a number of steps on the nuclear issue ... at the first stage, provided we
get the assurance that the other side ... do their end. We are still talking
about all this. But this issue [is] of simultaneity – that Iran will have to do
its share and, simultaneously, they have to do their share. But it can’t be
based on a principle of the other side waiting until we are done and then
deciding what needs to be done. So this issue of simultaneity is something
we’ve insisted upon, and I think our colleagues have understood this.”
The US and its allies understand it, but they do not
necessarily agree. Hence the repeated reminders from US officials in Vienna and
from President Barack Obama on Tuesday that Iran has to stick to the Lausanne
principles. Earlier this week, a senior US official suggested that preparations
for sanctions relief would be under way while Iran took its steps and that would
count as simultaneity.
“We have a lot of preparation to do. It is not something you
just turn a switch and all of a sudden it’s gone. There’s not only paperwork but a lot of interaction with financial institutions, developing regulatory
guidelines, guidance to banks – tons and tons of stuff. We have to prepare as
well. So everybody will get ready, everybody will take their steps, and then
when the IAEA has verified, virtually simultaneously whatever commitments we
make about the first phase of the lifting of sanctions will occur,” said the official.
Tehran wants something tangibleThis is unlikely to be enough for the Iranians, who are now
constrained by the public remarks of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on the
issue. Tehran wants something tangible while it is taking centrifuges apart and
yanking the reactor core from Arak. One option is the $100-billion in frozen Iranian
assets around the world. The government in Tehran has already
earmarked all of it for digging itself out of the mountain of internal debt to
the banks and construction sector built up by former president Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad. Eliminating that debt is key to getting the country going again.
Whether it is that money that will be key to getting around
this stumbling block in the last days or something else, Ravanchi sounded
confident it would happen. “I think this can be solved,” he said. – ©
Guardian News and Media 2015
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