72 hours to Iran deadline

72 hours to Iran deadline
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The March 31 deadline for the Obama administration to complete a prized nuclear deal with Iran is just 72 hours away, intensifying the pressure on negotiators.

If a deal is reached, Teheran would accept restrictions on its nuclear capabilities designed to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. In exchange, the United States and international bodies would lift sanctions that have crippled its economy. 

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A nuclear agreement would represent a major victory for President Obama, who has argued diplomacy is best way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. 

But it would be a stinging second-term blow to the president if talks fail, and a boost to members of Congress who have long been skeptical of negotiating with one of the United States’ longtime enemies. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Friday reiterated there is “at best” at 50-50 chance that a framework is agreed to by the end-of-March deadline. 

“This is a situation where the devil is in the details,” he said. 

Here is a closer look at some of the key disputes that could torpedo a deal. 

How long will the deal last?

The sticking points are tied to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. 

Teheran’s leaders insist their nuclear program is for civilian purposes. But the U.S. and other P5+1 countries that are involved in the talks — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia — fear Iran wants to build nuclear weapons. 

To that end, negotiators want to freeze Iran’s nuclear program for 10 years. But Iran has bristled at that timeline; last year its leaders sought to end the deal within seven years. 

Ayatollah Syed Salman Safavi, who is close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, told the Telegraph newspaper that the country could accept a 10-year deal as long as sanctions are lifted quickly.

What will be the pace of sanctions relief? 

Iran’s top leaders, Khameni and President Hassan Rouhani, have insisted that international sanctions be lifted immediately after a deal is finalized.

But the P5+1 nations want sanctions gradually phased out as Iran proves that it is abiding by the terms of the deal, a process that could take years. 

Iranian leaders face domestic pressure to push for quick sanctions relief. Restrictions on the nation’s energy and financial sectors caused Iran’s gross domestic product to shrink by 5 percent in 2013, the first time its economy contracted in two decades. 

But Western nations want sanctions relief to happen slowly. Sanctions are the greatest leverage they have in the negotiations, and experts believe once they are lifted, it won’t be easy to reimpose them if Iran violates terms of the agreement. 

Undoing the complex system of sanctions will not be easy. President Obama has the power to lift a limited number of sanctions on Iran on his own. But an act of Congress would be required to lift all of them. 

In addition, there are United Nations and European Union sanctions that would need to be waived. 

How many centrifuges will Iran be allowed to have? 

Secretary of State John Kerry, the chief American negotiator, has insisted that any deal have at least a one year “breakout time” — the time it would take for Iran to create enough fissile material to fuel a bomb. 

A draft version of the deal obtained by the Associated Press last week would limit Iran to 6,000 centrifuges, the machines that produce enriched uranium, at its main enrichment site at Natanz.  

In addition, the U.S. is considering allowing Iran to operate hundreds more at a fortified, underground bunker at Fordo as long as they are not used to enrich uranium, according to the AP. The P5+1 nations initially wanted all centrifuges eliminated from that facility.  

Iran currently operates 10,000 centrifuges at Natanz alone. 

How can Iran be trusted to honor the deal?

The P5+1 powers want Iran to accept an unprecedented level of inspections on their nuclear facilities. 

The inspections would last indefinitely, even after the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity expire, national security adviser Susan Rice said earlier this month.  

But critics of the deal fear that the inspections are a toothless method to ensure Iran does not build a bomb. In the past, Iran has refused to allow inspectors to examine its nuclear sites. 

Just this week, an Iranian official rebuffed an International Atomic Energy Agency request to conduct snap inspections of the country’s nuclear sites, saying it interfered with ongoing negotiations.  

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called that a sign Iran is unwilling to “come clean on its past efforts to build a nuclear weapon.” 

“As U.S. negotiators reconvene with their Iranian counterparts, this issue must be front and center,” he said in a statement on Thursday. “Members of Congress have made it clear that Iran’s past bomb work must be disclosed if a deal is to have any credibility.”

Will the crisis in Yemen derail the talks? 

The conflict in Yemen has raised complications for the nuclear talks. 

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief Sunni rival in the region, has launched an air offensive against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen. 

The United States is supporting those airstrikes because the Yemeni government has been a key counterterrorism ally. But that has put the U.S. in an awkward position with Iran. 

Earnest expressed doubt on Friday that the regional conflict would affect the nuclear talks.