The clock is ticking

The deadline for the final agreement between the E3+3/P5+1 and Iran is set for the end of June and is not likely to be extended again. However, the P5+1 and Iran set a self-imposed deadline of March 31st to complete a framework agreement for the deal. In the days leading up to this deadline, the involved countries have been meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland to try to reach compromises on some of the issues that remain.

March 31st has now passed without any announcement of a framework deal. Iranian negotiators have said they will stay as long as it takes while the US has agreed to stay another day to see if a breakthrough can be achieved. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said “we have a broad framework of understanding but some key issues still have to be worked through” but others appear to have lost hope in the negotiations. Foreign Ministers from China and France left the talks on Wednesday. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, has said he would return if it was “useful” and the Chinese delegation issued a statement saying, “if the talks are stuck then all previous efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff with the six major powers will have been wasted.” There is serious risk that parties have reached a stalemate.

Following days of negotiations in Switzerland, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that for a majority of issues, solutions have been “completely found”. A deal would likely allow Iran around 6,000 centrifuges and Iran’s stockpiled fissile material would be sent to Russia for storage. While compromises seem to have been made about the centrifuges and stockpiles, the main issues that remain are the timeline for sanctions relief, the length of the deal, and how to handle non-compliance.

Iran wants the sanctions removed swiftly but the P5+1 have different ideas about the timeline. The deal is intended to last ten years, but the question of how to end it remains. Iran wants the deal to end immediately after ten years, but the P5+1 want to conditionally and slowly remove limitations on Iran over another five. On the issue of non-compliance, the P5+1 want to ensure that there is a swift way to reinstate UN sanctions should Iran fail to uphold the deal. Russia agrees with the principle, but has been careful to make sure its UN Security Council veto would not be undermined.

Though some senior parties remain in Lausanne, reaching a framework agreement looks less promising than it did at the beginning of the week. Parties committed to reaching a comprehensive political agreement by the end of March when they extended the talks back in November 2014, but this has evolved into an expectation of reaching a loose “general agreement”. Despite the change in language lowering expectations, not even a loose general agreement appears to have been achieved.

Negotiators have faced various challenges throughout the past few months as they worked to reach a deal. In the United States, strong opposition to talks has been expressed in both houses of Congress, and potential proposals that would undermine the negotiations by doing everything from imposing new sanctions to requiring Congressional review of any deal made with Iran have been seriously discussed. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly stated his opposition to the negotiations, claiming that a deal would facilitate the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel. Israelis are not the only people in the Middle East that fears an agreement with Iran. The Saudi Arabian leadership perceives dangers in a nuclear deal increasing Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East. Some analysts counter by claiming that Iranian engagement will help calm the region. Strained tensions between Russia and the Western powers have added complexity to the P5+1 talks.

This missed deadline may have a ripple effect in other areas; any hopes that promising achievements in the P5+1 negotiations could set a positive tone at this month’s NPT Review Conference may now have to be put in check. The talks continue, but the clock is ticking and patience is not indefinite.

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