Time clock for deal with Iran

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the P5+1, and Iran are in overtime negotiations to reach a nuclear agreement, after failing to craft one in the first year of talks. The hardest stage of negotiations between these powers is occurring now, ahead of the March 1 deadline for a framework deal. Iran and the West need to work harder than ever to reach a resolution. However, perpetual extension of negotiations is not politically or economically feasible. A confluence of factors—insufficient economic relief, hardliners in the U.S. Congress and Iran, and ambitions of certain P5+1 members—makes the window of opportunity to conclude a deal very brief. 

Under the current interim deal, economic relief is insufficient to satisfy Iran in the long-term. In conjunction with low oil prices, President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to improve Iran’s economy would be compromised by a long-term continuation of the interim agreement. Oil prices have slid dramatically since June highs of $115 a barrel to around $50 today. The drop in oil price has reduced Iran’s revenue, which relies 50 percent on the oil sector. Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, Iran’s oil minister, stated recently that after sanctions are lifted, Iran would raise production from 2.7 million b/d to a goal of four million b/d. Iran’s oil production ambitions fall outside the bounds prescribed by the sanctions currently in place. If the untenable combination of lack of economic relief and falling oil prices causes a crisis in Iran’s leadership, progress in nuclear negotiations could be undone. Nuclear diplomacy could fail entirely if a new president emerges who is not interested in making a deal. 

Another threat to the conclusion of a final deal is the prospect of the U.S. Congress imposing additional sanctions on Iran. Unhappy with the current negotiations, members of Congress may impose new sanctions on Iran to urge a more rapid end to its nuclear program. Such a scenario would undermine one of the primary motivations that brought Iran to the negotiation table. Any new sanctions by the West would signal to Iran its lack of seriousness in making a deal and the closing of a pathway to economic relief. Moreover, any tightening of sanctions by the United States would upset the delicate balance among the P5+1 and make other negotiating parties walk away. This would crush remaining hopes of successfully reaching a deal. 

Yet another challenge among the members of the P5+1 lies with the ambitions of Russia and China. They may walk away from negotiations if they linger on too long without resolution. Or, Russia and China may cause an irreparable rift among the P5+1 if they push to accept less from Iran in order to wrap up negotiations more rapidly. Iran needs international partners for foreign investment and assistance to expand oil and especially gas production. Eventually, Russia and China may come to see more value in collaborating with Iran on mutually beneficial economic opportunities than staying in negotiations that deny Iran, and foreign investors, economic opportunity. The P5+1 must tread carefully, and expeditiously, to conclude a deal before their unity and resolve break down. 

Internal politics in Iran will also not tolerate the status quo. Some hardliners in Iran argue that the P5+1 need the deal more than Iran, which they assert remains strong in the face of punishing sanctions. Iran’s success in affecting regional dynamics today buoys their confidence and emboldens anti-West political leaders. However, if negotiations drag on and promised economic relief does not materialize, hardliners’ rhetoric may trump the voice of those who point to Iran’s economic vulnerability and need for a deal.  In the event of such a tilt in Iranian internal politics, the country may stray from nuclear diplomacy. 

In the final round of negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 must stay at the negotiation table and reach a deal in order to seize the window of opportunity. The time to negotiate will not last forever. Hardliners in Iran and in the U.S. Congress pose a threat to negotiations with their rhetoric and possible imposition of sanctions. Russia and China’s resolve may waver because the benefits of collaborating with Iran on economic opportunities may eventually outweigh the uncertainty associated with negotiations. 

To avoid a collapse in talks, Iran needs to demonstrate concrete evidence that it is halting and undoing its nuclear program in order to obtain incremental economic relief. For their part, the P5+1 must stay united and be firm, but also give Iran sufficient room to demonstrate its commitment to a deal. Brash actions may upset the delicate balance with fatal results for a deal, nuclear diplomacy and security of the global community. 

Maruyama is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, a security and foreign policy think tank in Washington.