Blog Post - Iran Matters

Ignore June 30: Time is on the Side of a Better Iran Deal

| June 28, 2015

Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), a deep skeptic of the Obama administration’s approach, recently admonished Secretary Kerry that “June 30 is an artificial deadline . . . If it takes longer to get the right deal, take longer, please.”  A swelling bipartisan chorus, including five former top Iran advisors to President Obama, has just written an open letter urging the Administration not to treat upcoming June 30 deadline for a comprehensive nuclear accord as “inviolable.”

A widely shared desire for a stronger agreement motivates these appeals.  Far less well understood are the negotiating reasons why time is actually on the side of the U.S. and its P5+1 partners to strengthen the vital “details” of a comprehensive nuclear deal—provided the P5+1 allies stick together and the U.S. Congress does not prematurely derail the talks.

Prior to the “interim deal” reached in November 2013, Iranian negotiators could—and did—play for time while the regime rapidly added more centrifuges and increased production of enriched uranium.  That is no longer the case. For the first time in years, the interim deal froze much of Iran’s nuclear program and rolled back some of its key elements.   And thus far, its terms have largely been observed by all sides.

In return for accepting these interim restrictions, Iran received “limited, targeted, and reversible relief from some nuclear-related sanctions”—estimated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be worth $14-15 billion to Iran by June 2015.  The remaining sanctions, however, were estimated by Treasury to cost the Iranian economy a vastly greater amount, equivalent to some “$200 billion in lost exports and funds it cannot freely use.” 

The sanctions have bitten hard, with the value of Iran’s currency halved and its oil exports reduced from roughly 2.5 million barrels per day to about 1.1 million.  And that bite has become even sharper than initially expected as oil prices have plummeted by 40-50% over the last two years. This has virtually doubled the cost to Iran of the oil sanctions.  Meanwhile, its weak economy suffers even more as billions are poured into Iran’s military aggression in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. 

If “crippling sanctions” were heavily responsible for bringing Iran to the table, the sharp economic pain of remaining sanctions compounded by cheaper oil and swollen military spending make delaying a comprehensive deal increasingly costly to Iran.  Meanwhile, its nuclear program has largely been put on hold by the interim deal.  In this context, P5+1 negotiators should hold out for a good deal.

What would a good deal require?  Most fair-minded observers were surprised at the potential stringency of the “framework agreement” reached this April between Iran and the P5+1.  If fleshed out and implemented as envisioned by United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners, this framework agreement would be worthwhile.  It would cut the number of centrifuges by two-thirds, reduce the amount of low-enriched uranium from about 10,000 kg to about 300 kg, convert the deeply buried Fordow facility from uranium enrichment to non-nuclear uses, reconfigure the Arak reactor to block a “plutonium path” to a bomb, increase the “breakout” time for Iran from a few months to about a year, and enable far more intrusive inspections.  These provisions would last at least a decade, gradually tapering off during the following 15 years.   

By contrast, abandoning talks and even bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would only provide a 2-4 year delay before the Iranians, newly united and with redoubled determination, would kick out international inspectors and likely drive for nuclear weapons in greater secrecy and in even more hardened facilities.

Yet, without satisfactory negotiation of its yet-unspecified “details”, the March framework agreement could easily end up in a weak, unacceptable form.  Such vital details, as highlighted by the bipartisan “open letter” writers and other sophisticated observers such as former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, include the specifics of monitoring and verification mechanisms, access to military sites and experts, timing and conditions for lifting sanctions, and “snapback” mechanisms to re-impose sanctions for Iranian violations.  

As skilled bargainers even with a weak hand, the Iranians have been busily positioning themselves to insist on a fatally weak version of the framework deal.  They may well play chicken with the June 30 deadline, confident that the U.S. and its allies have boxed themselves in with an arbitrary, self-imposed endpoint for the talks.  And undoubtedly, they’re seeking to split off Russia and China, already wavering with their own agendas, from the P5+1. 

 While striving to hold the P5+1 together, its negotiators must decide how to deal with such potential Iranian intransigence come June 30.  Capitulation is a terrible idea.  So is completely abandoning talks, especially if forced to do so by a hawkish U.S. Congress.  In that case, odds are good that many other countries—eager to resume commerce with Iran—would blame the U.S. for the breakdown and would fail to cooperate with renewed or intensified sanctions.  Post-breakdown sanctions without widespread adherence would be far less effective than current, generally supported restrictions on Iran.

 So, consistent with the March framework deal, a united P5+1 should present reasonable and specific requirements to their Iranian counterparts, publicize these requirements to the world, and keep tenaciously negotiating . . . as least as long as the sanctions mainly hold. If the Iranians resist or themselves break off talks, there will be a broadly convincing basis for even tougher sanctions.  Should the Iranians go so far as to denounce even the interim deal—and even start enriching at a higher level—even harsher measures will be widely seen as justified.

 During nuclear talks before the interim deal, the Iranians could endlessly temporize while their centrifuge capacity and stocks of enriched uranium grew rapidly.  Now, P5+1 negotiators should recognize that time is on their side, with much of the Iranian nuclear program frozen by the interim deal, oil prices low, regional military adventures bleeding money, and sanctions biting even harder.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sebenius, James.Ignore June 30: Time is on the Side of a Better Iran Deal.” Iran Matters, June 28, 2015,

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