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Nov 8, 2013 | 22:14 GMT

U.S., Iran: A Historic Deal in the Making

(FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Washington and Tehran may soon reach a historic agreement over Iran's controversial nuclear program. As talks in Geneva move into their third day, both sides are continuing to negotiate the framework for a deal, moving what had been back-channel negotiations into the public realm. In these more publicized meetings, Iran and the United States are devising ways to implement what they have already agreed on — a process that could encounter minor obstacles but that is unlikely to be derailed entirely. 

On Nov. 8, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that a deal has not been reached and that some issues need to be resolved. Kerry was likely responding to rumors that the United States and Iran would soon reach a breakthrough in the talks. Such optimism is somewhat well-founded; much of the information was leaked deliberately by the U.S. government. Still, Kerry's remarks were echoed earlier in the week by his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, who said that a deal could be reached sometime this week. He admitted that negotiations had stalled somewhat but noted that any potential delays would be surmountable.

These and other signs coming from the region strongly indicate that the two sides have indeed arrived at a tentative understanding; now they must figure out how to implement it. The U.S. and Iranian governments both face heavy domestic resistance, and they feel a sense of urgency to show that the diplomacy is moving forward, albeit slowly.

Satisfying Both Sides

Washington and Tehran have demonstrated that they want the negotiations to progress unimpeded. U.S. President Barack Obama has discouraged Congress from imposing additional sanctions, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has strongly supported Zarif's diplomatic team and called on Iran's more hawkish opponents to refrain from disrupting the negotiations.

While we have seen hawkish statements from elements inside Washington and Tehran, both sides anticipated such remarks and intimated to one another that they should be ignored. The statements also help each side bargain with the other. As they formulate ways to move from agreement to application, the negotiators want to show that they have not conceded much and that what they have each gained is worthwhile.

The Obama administration has made it clear that it will not alter any part of the sanctions regime against Iran. Meanwhile, the Rouhani administration has made it clear that it will not permanently stop enriching uranium. Paradoxically, to appear victorious, Washington needs to show that it has prevented Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons, and the Iranians need to show that they have convinced Washington to relent on its sanctions regime. So the question is: What would a bargain that satisfies both sides look like?

For Iran to benefit from sanctions relief, Tehran needs Washington to do more than simply allow it to resume exports and recover funds owed for oil it already has exported. The money is important, but perhaps not as much as the symbolism of Iran's demand that assets be unfrozen. This would enable Rouhani to show his constituents that he changed the United States' attitude toward the Islamic republic. Obama has the authority to repeal Executive Order 13622, which covers transactions between the National Iranian Oil Company and "foreign financial institutions," and he can also unfreeze some assets without congressional approval.

Ultimately, Rouhani needs to recover a few billion dollars to show that his policies are working and to gain greater leverage in taking the negotiations to the next level. In addition, Rouhani has to placate his country's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has demanded that Obama promise not to seek regime change. Obama can meet these demands fairly easily, but not without something in return.

The Iranians are not prepared to halt uranium enrichment outright, but as an Iranian deputy foreign minister said Nov. 8, Tehran is prepared to "negotiate over the size, form and dimensions of enrichment." What this means is that Iran is prepared to temporarily stop 20-percent enrichment, desist from installing further centrifuges and open up some of its facilities for inspection. It is noteworthy that International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano is scheduled to arrive in Tehran the week of Nov. 10, likely to discuss access and transparency issues with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. Notably, Iran has demanded assurances that its facilities would not be damaged during inspection and that the United States would protect Iran from any military reprisals by Israel.

A Matter of Authority

Many of the agreement's details have yet to be worked out. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, who also serves as the point of contact in the P-5+1 group, has invited Zarif to attend a trilateral meeting with Kerry to address remaining issues. This means that lower-level negotiators encountered problems they did not have the authority to solve on their own — hence the involvement of Zarif and Kerry, who postponed the last leg of his Middle East/North Africa trip to rush to Geneva.

Most likely, these unresolved issues pertain to sanctions relief and access to nuclear facilities. They will take time to resolve, and we expect more issues to crop up as the negotiations move forward. But both sides need to identify precisely what they agree on, and the agreements needs to be articulated clearly.

It is unclear whether the final touches will take hours or days. Either way, some kind of agreement will be reached. The agreement will shape further negotiations, which in turn will affect the geopolitics of the world's most volatile region. 

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