No Deal If US Insists on Including Iran’s Missile Program

04 August 2014 | 12:38 Code : 1936703 Interview General category
An interview with Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist and expert on Iranian affairs and US foreign policy
No Deal If US Insists on Including Iran’s Missile Program

August 4th, 2014 – Sara Massoumi


On July 18th, the Joint Plan of Action was extended for four months by Iran and the P5+1. In the months prior to this extension, and after the initial agreement was signed in Geneva only months after the Rohani administration came to power, there had been a great amount of optimism about Tehran and the West reaching a comprehensive agreement by the July 20 deadline, therefore ending ten years of nuclear conflict. No one knows exactly what was discussed and what took place in Vienna, due to the secret nature of the talks, but the main question on the minds of Western analysts is, what red lines do Iran and the P5+1 have which have led to such difficulty in reaching a comprehensive agreement. To answer this and other questions regarding Iran’s nuclear dossier and the existing challenges, Iranian Diplomacy recently spoke with Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist, author, and expert on Iranian affairs and US foreign policy.


On July 18th, the Joint Plan of Action was extended for four months in Vienna. Could this extension, and not an agreement, be interpreted as a failure in Iran-P5+1 negotiations?


No, not at all. A comprehensive agreement was always going to be complicated with many details to work out. Let’s remember that a nuclear deal is just that: a deal that puts to rest an issue that has dogged all sides for over ten years now, and to have a final agreement that satisfies all parties was never going to be simple. The JPOA was a temporary measure that did not address some of the biggest concerns of the west, and was implemented to give time to sort out a final deal. While it may be disappointing that an agreement wasn’t reached in six months, the mere fact that all sides agreed to extend the talks means all parties felt enough progress had been made that a final deal could be envisioned. 


It seems that the presence of Hassan Rohani as the Iranian President and Mohammad Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister has created an atmosphere in which not only the Europeans but also the US look at the new Iranian administration as a political advantage to put aside differences. After one year since the establishment of the Government of Prudence and Hope and the extension of nuclear negotiations, could the conclusion be made, in your opinion, that Tehran’s fixed red lines in nuclear negotiations have made interaction with any government in this regard difficult?


I don’t think so. It’s not clear what the exact red lines are for either Iran or the U.S., and we assume that they will be revealed at the end of negotiations, whether there is a final deal or not. But the Iranian administration has found creative ways, through Dr. Zarif, of satisfying western concerns while not abandoning what Iran believes to be its rights—the issue of “right to enrich” is a prime example—and I believe that the western powers find negotiating with Iran under Dr. Rouhani to be far more straightforward and less frustrating than with the previous administration. It remains to be seen if more creative ways can be found to bridge remaining gaps, but regardless of whether those gaps can be bridged, I believe western governments and Russia and China see Iran as a more reasonable counterpart and that will affect relations beyond just the nuclear issue.


It seems that the Iranian party still insists on the observation of the red lines which it has reiterated from the beginning of negotiations. What are Iran’s technical red lines on the nuclear issue at the present time?


I don’t think anyone knows exactly. There are what we believe to be red lines in terms of Iran’s capacity to enrich during the term of the agreement—which might be the biggest gap to bridge—but if all sides believed that red lines were absolutely fixed then there wouldn’t have been an extension in the talks.


Doesn’t Iran need to change some of its nuclear positions in order to reach an agreement?


Undoubtedly. As does the United States, and I say the U.S. because it appears that the U.S. (and perhaps France) are the parties that have the biggest issues with Iran’s position.


What are the red lines of the P5+1, especially the US, on technical nuclear issues?


It appears that the red line for the U.S. in particular is “breakout time”, which is directly related to the number of centrifuges that Iran will have spinning during the term of the agreement. A number of scientists and analysts have put out papers and articles that suggest Iran’s breakout time must be extended (from 2 months now, according to some estimates) to a minimum of a year. Congress has the idea that no deal can allow Iran to have a shorter period to breakout, and as we know Congress is more skeptical of a deal that the administration in the U.S. So if Iran can find a way to address the breakout period to the satisfaction of the U.S.’ technical experts who are on the negotiating team, then that red line on the exact number of centrifuges—which is in reality only one measure of breakout but easy for laymen to understand—may be moved. 


We saw that the P5+1 practically moved past zero enrichment in Iran in the Joint Plan of Action and somehow recognized Iran’s right to enrichment on its own soil. What special concessions, in your opinion, does the US have ready for the final step in order to satisfy Iran?


I’m not sure it’s clear at this point, in the same way that it’s not clear what Iran will concede. But I think both sides know that there will have to be concessions in order to make a deal. 


How could Iran’s sanctions be lifted by the US based on their current laws? Recently, Wendy Sherman has stressed that the lifting of sanctions is not on their agenda and that the US is contemplating the suspension of sanctions.


It is true that many of the sanctions cannot be lifted completely without Congress acting, but the president does have the executive power to waive some of them. If a deal is to last for, let’s say ten years, presumably during that period if Iran is complying with the accord then sanctions will remain suspended, and if at the end of that period Iran is shown to have completely abided by the accord and hasn’t moved in any way toward weapon technology, then Congress might be persuaded to lift sanctions completely. Presumably if they don’t, the sanctions will be less effective since few other countries will go along with the U.S. at that point, which will appear to be the unreasonable party and the party that has broken the deal.


During recent years, the most severe sanctions were imposed by the US and the UN Security Council against Iran. This is while some US hardliners stress that Iran should remain on the list of sanctions due to, what they call, the violation of human rights by Tehran. Could nuclear sanctions be separated from other sanctions which were imposed against Iran?


One has to assume so. UN sanctions can easily be lifted, and U.S. sanctions related to non-nuclear issues (human rights or terrorism-sponsoring) will remain something to be negotiated separately from nuclear-related sanctions.


From the beginning of negotiations, it has been heard from the Israelis that no agreement with Tehran is better than a bad agreement. What are the components of a bad agreement from the viewpoint of the US?


The "no deal is better than a bad deal" concept is a silly one, because no deal means Iran will forge ahead with its nuclear program and the US or Israel will have to either accept it or make good on their promise that “all options are on the table”. So that probably means war, or military action, and that cannot be better than having Iran’s program monitored carefully and under restrictions during the term of an agreement. A bad deal, for many in the U.S., is one that allows Iran the opportunity to build a bomb if it chooses to. But that option will always exist for Iran, from a technology standpoint, and I think the U.S. administration recognizes that once nuclear fuel can produced on Iranian soil, the possibility of weaponization exists. So whatever deal is made will be considered “bad” by Israel and by hardliners in the U.S., but a bad deal as far as the administration is concerned is simply one that doesn’t restrict Iran’s program enough to prevent it from moving toward a bomb in a very short time period. 


During the sixth round of negotiations in Vienna, Mr. Zarif, in an interview with the New York Times, proposed a good technical plan with regard to Iran’s nuclear activities in order to reduce the West’s concerns. What are the characteristics of this plan and has it been able to attract the attention of the P5+1 as a roadmap?


It certainly received attention, but presumably Dr. Zarif’s proposal had already been heard by the P5+1 and was under consideration for negotiation. It essentially was an offer to keep Iran’s centrifuges at their current level but to convert any fuel produced into a form that could not be weaponized, a sort of “freeze” of the nuclear enrichment program in place that would alleviate concerns about breakout time—if the fuel produced is converted into a form that cannot be re-converted back into a form for weaponization then theoretically breakout time is greatly lengthened. I’m not sure if this is considered a roadmap of sorts, but clearly we know two things: that the P5+1 couldn’t accept the proposal as is, and that (with John Kerry there) they felt that Iran had made enough good faith efforts that the talks should be extended. 


Iran has always reiterated that it will not discuss its missile program during the course of nuclear negotiations. This is while Wendy Sherman has recently stated that this issue will be discussed with Tehran. In your opinion, what serious challenges would this issue create and how practical is the discussion of the issue of Iran’s missile program, which Einhorn calls a necessity on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations?


I don’t think that in the end that the missile program will be tied directly to the nuclear deal. I don’t think that if the U.S. were insisting that it is, that anyone would believe that a deal could be made in three months. There may be some reference to the missile program—perhaps something to be negotiated later—but I don’t see how the missile program can be part of the comprehensive nuclear deal, at least not if everyone wants a deal by November 24. There are, in the U.S., some people who believe that not just the missile program, but human rights issues and support for terrorism also have to be in a comprehensive deal, and some who think that unless Iran admits that it was pursuing nuclear weapons in the past no deal should be made, but I think the administration is moving forward knowing those elements cannot be a part of a nuclear deal, otherwise there will be no deal. And the consequences of failure in making a deal are onerous for all sides, especially given the instability in the region right now.

tags: iran US nuclear vienna