Iran's nuclear deal countdown: What's on the table?

Iran's nuclear deal countdown: What's on the table?
5 min read
06 July, 2015
Analysis: As the deadline looms, al-Araby looks at the details, disagreements, and challenges of the long-awaited nuclear agreement between Iran and other major powers.
Nuclear talks continue in Vienna as the deadline looms [AFP]

Overlooking Theodor Hertzl Platz in the heart of Vienna, US and Iranian delegations sit facing each other to seal a deal that is expected to change the course of history.

The Russian delegation sometimes join the table, as does the Chinese, while largely remaining passive - when asked, they generally call for greater effort and political will.

British diplomats join as well. Their position is consistent with the US. On the other hand, France and Germany exchange "good cop/bad cop" roles whenever necessary.

In short, the nuclear talks, extending for more than three years, have proven to be one of the most complicated diplomatic endeavours of this century.

Despite substantial progress in drafting the final agreement, obstacles persist.

The ongoing round of talks is set to be the last, as diplomats attempt to reach an agreement that would curb Iran's nuclear activities for a decade and put tens of billions of dollars back into the Iranian economy through the easing of financial sanctions.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed
looks at the emerging Iran deal, based on the most recent information available, the remaining points of disagreement, and the political challenges ahead.

What is the deal about?

Practically, the deal is about nuclear enrichment.

Uranium can be enriched for energy, medicine and science purposes, as Iran claims are its goals. It can also be spun into material for a nuclear warhead.

To ease the greatest threat posed by Iran's nuclear programme, negotiators are limiting the number of Iran's nuclear centrifuges to a little more than 6,000 for the next ten years. Of these, some 5,000 can be in operation at any given time; they can only include Iran's basic, least efficient model for enriching uranium.

The deal locks in place restrictions on Iran's enrichment so material stays far below weapons-grade. It also forces Iran to deeply cut its stockpile of enriched uranium over 15 years.

As for the underground nuclear enrichment facility in Fordo, the deal deprives Iran from enriching uranium or conducting uraniam-related research and development underground for at least 15 years, as the site becomes a nuclear physics and technology research centre.

     Centrifuges running at Fordo must use other material that cannot be turned into nuclear bombs.

Centrifuges running at Fordo must use other material that cannot be turned into nuclear bombs.

Iran has a heavy water reactor at its facility in Arak which can produce weapons-grade plutonium. Under the prospective agreement, the reactor's original core must be destroyed or exported, and the Iranians are not allowed to build another heavy water reactor for 15 years.

In order to ensure that this is attainable, the agreement sets transparency guidelines.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will monitor Iran's nuclear facilities and have access to the programme's entire supply chain. International inspectors can examine uranium mines and mills, and maintain continuous surveillance of Iran's centrifuge rotors and storage facilities.

Moreoever, IAEA will be allowed to investigate suspicious sites or allegations of covert nuclear work.

In return, US and European nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA verifies Iranian compliance.

UN Security Council resolutions on Iran will be lifted simultaneously with Iran fulfilling commitments related to enrichment, Fordo's underground facility, Arak's heavy water reactor, and other matters.

Naturally, if Iran violates the deal, sanctions can be re-imposed.

Points of dispute

Days before the deadline, Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei rejected inspections or allowing Iranian scientists to be interviewed by foreign experts. The Iranian government went further last week, enacting legislation banning such access.

It seems that the Iranian government wants to have some say in when and where inspections are allowed - something that the US clearly disagrees with.

Iran also wants sanctions to be lifted immediately after the agreement is reached. The US demands that Iran fulfills its obligations first. While Obama seems to be willing to compromise on this point, his administration is concerned that such a move might stir a backlash in Congress.

Another point of disagreement is Iran's right to research and development. Iran insists on its right to continue research and development in the field. April's framework agreed upon between Iran and the major powers left this point vague - merely stating that permitted level of research Iran can undergo will be "limited".

     The US president will have a hard time selling the deal to the opposition in the Senate and the Congress.

Political challenges

The US president will have a hard time selling the deal to the opposition in the Senate and the Congress. The Senate can weigh in, but voting "no" won't kill the deal, because President Obama doesn't need congressional approval for a multinational deal that is not designated a treaty.

Lawmakers have 30 days to review the agreement, during which Obama can't ease sanctions on Iran - even if it showed commitment. If negotiations drag on past July 9 without a deal, that review period extends to 60 days.

If lawmakers were to build a veto-proof majority behind new legislation enacting new sanctions or preventing Obama from suspending existing ones, the administration would be prevented from living up to the accord.

On the other side, Iran's hardliners, backed by Khamenei and a history of anti-US sentiment, will examine the deal for any sign of "humiliating" concessions.

And groups largely beyond the government's control, such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps, may not be keen to implement the requirements.

On the international stage, Israel has aggressively lobbied against any deal with Iran, a country described by the Israeli prime minister as "the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world".

Pro-Israel lobbies are grounding their opposition on claims that such a deal would pave the way for a future Iranian nuclear arsenal.

Israel has threatened for years to attack nuclear sites if it feels the Iranians are getting too close to weapons capacity. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has appealed directly to Congress to maintain sanctions pressure on Iran.

The Saudis, similarly, say they'll do whatever it takes to guarantee their security.

Along with the other Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned about Iran recouping up to $100 billion in blocked assets overseas, and funneling some of that money into insurgencies and terrorist activity throughout the Middle East.

The Saudis have been coy on whether they may start a nuclear enrichment programme to match Iran's capabilities in response to an agreement. France has recently announced its readiness to build two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia.

Many other state and non-state forces will try to influence the outcomes.

The trust built over years of political negotiations between Obama's administration and Rouhani's delegation will be severely tested once the deal is announced and the opposition - in both countries - reacts.