Deal or no deal

Everyone is anticipating a nuclear deal with Iran today, or not. Either way it is the big news.

I’d bet 60/40 on a “framework” political commitment that lays out some basic and well-known parameters: limits on enriching and stockpiling uranium, slowing of plutonium production, lifting of sanctions and limits over a decade or more, and International Atomic Energy Agency verification.

I don’t expect much on what I regard as the most critical question: answers to the IAEA questions about “possible military dimensions.” No IAEA-safeguarded nuclear program has ever generated the material used in a nuclear weapons program. All proliferation has been accomplished in secret. Iran has still not clarified some of its past activities, but that issue is treated separately between Tehran and the IAEA, not in the P5+1 talks.

Any agreement is going to be difficult for both the US and Iran. Hardliners abound in both countries. Distrust is the rule, not the exception. President Obama needs to be able to argue credibly that framework agreement will in fact prevent Iran from gaining the material needed to make a nuclear weapon in less than a year, as well as ensure that we will know if a decision to produce nuclear weapons is made. President Rouhani will have to be able to argue credibly that Iran’s basic rights have been respected and sanctions significantly alleviated.

Both Tehran and Washington will need to be able to argue that a deal is better than no deal. Washington’s argument will include the inevitable fraying of the sanctions regime if there is no deal. Tehran’s argument will include the inevitable additional damage to Iran’s economy and the (unmentioned but still important) possibility of domestic instability. Both will want to avoid war, which would be devastating for Iran but also embroil the US in still another Middle Eastern conflict, without setting the Iranian nuclear program back more than a few years.

Within the P5+1 team, China and Russia will weigh heavily towards a deal that is generous to Iran. The UK, France and Germany will be closer to the US position, with France apparently arguing for a tougher stand on sanctions than the US. These other participants will be able to influence the shape of what is proposed, but it will ultimately be up to Iran and the US to accept or reject it.

I won’t be surprised if there are last-minute hitches that extend the negotiations, at least for a few hours. That is common in all international negotiations, not least because officials in capitals–in this case Presidents Obama and Rouhani as well as Supreme Leader Khamenei–will need to give a final green or red light. But it is also true that the temptation to throw in a last demand at midnight is great, since the other side by that time is anticipating a result.

Whatever is decided, or not, today or early tomorrow in Lausanne will need further technical elaboration in the months to come before the end-June deadline for a full agreement. Technical details are important. We can expect further drama in the weeks and months to come.

Iran and the US remain at odds on other Middle East issues, including most notably at the moment Syria and Yemen. Even in Iraq, where both are fighting against the Islamic State, their fundamental interests diverge. Even with a deal, peace is unlikely to break out. But a deal might well prevent things from getting much worse.

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