The results: A sketch of an outline of a roadmap to an Iran nuclear deal

April 3, 2015
View of the Arak heavy-water project southwest of Tehran

A view of the Iranian Arak heavy-water project southwest of Tehran, Aug. 26, 2006. REUTERS/ISNA/Handout

At historic moments, we sometimes expect to hear historic language. But that was not the order of the day in Lausanne, Switzerland, as diplomats concluded their marathon negotiating session to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. In the carefully crafted statement by the European Union’s Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Zavad Zarif, the outcome of eight days of talks was awkwardly referred to as “solutions on key parameters of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).” 

While this is certainly an upgrade from the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (it is now “comprehensive”), it is far from done. The Lausanne arrangement is not a treaty, it is not a framework agreement, it is not signed, it may not even be an agreement. In his remarks, President Barack Obama stated that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” For the moment, it is an understanding.

Curiously, the four issues that were outstanding at the beginning of the week were barely mentioned in the joint statement. These were the duration of the agreement, the disposition of the stockpile of nuclear material, the phasing out of sanctions and research and development (R&D) on advanced centrifuges. The Mogherini-Zarif statement made no mention of any timelines, either for the agreement or for sanctions, and the only reference to the stockpile was that it would be limited for a specified duration. On R&D, the scope and schedule will be “mutually agreed.”

Despite these (and likely other) gaps, the Mogherini-Zarif statement was specific about some issues. Clearly, both sides agreed on the parameters for Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor; its redesign, along with Iran’s pledge not to reprocess spent fuel and not to build other heavy-water reactors in the next 15 years, significantly cuts off the plutonium route to the bomb. The statement also clearly defined Natanz as the only uranium enrichment facility allowed under the agreement, while details of the conversion of the heavily fortified Fordow nuclear facility from a major enrichment facility were scant.

Language on sanctions was fairly strong: the official statement commits the EU to “terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions as Iran implements its key nuclear commitments, verified by the IAEA,” and commits that the United States to cease the application (whether that means lift, suspend, or waive) all nuclear-related third-party economic and financial sanctions. It will be interesting to see how Iranian leaders manage domestic expectations about how quickly sanctions will be lifted; people have already begun to celebrate on the streets of Tehran in response to news from Lausanne.

One curious absence in the JCPOA is any mention of limits on other kinds of enrichment research that doesn’t involve centrifuges, for example, laser enrichment. Although the U.S. State Department spokesperson released a four-page, detailed document entitled “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program” that put facts and figures to the bare-boned JCPOA, it did not allude to limits on laser enrichment R&D.

The next few months will be crucial. The push for a framework agreement this week likely had one purpose: to give Iranian negotiators time to take the outlines of an agreement back to Tehran for final approval. Given past missteps, this was a reasonable approach. Hopefully, the JCPOA has enough details to convince Iranian leaders to invest politically in the diplomatic solution at hand, culminating in a final, robust agreement that builds confidence on both sides.

In the end, a good deal will limit Iran’s nuclear program but not forever. It will only buy time, but such time is necessary and valuable to both parties of the agreement. With additional monitoring and restrictions, Iran has the opportunity to demonstrate that it is complying with its rights and responsibilities under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, that it has a verifiably peaceful nuclear energy program that could benefit from uranium enrichment and that its capabilities present a commercial opportunity to its neighbors rather than a threat. This could take a few more decades and a few more historic moments.

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