TEHRAN - Ryan Costello, a policy fellow at the National Iranian American Council, believes that a final and comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers is “strongly possible” by November 23.
After 16 days of intense negotiations in Vienna last month, Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) agreed to extend the deadline for the talks until November 24.
“An agreement by November 23 is strongly possible,” Costello tells the Tehran Times.
Following is the text of the interview with Costello:
Q: Mr. Costello in article in the Huffington Post dated July 31 you wrote that “congressional hawks” are seeking to take a “tough line” against Iran and cut off funding for intensive inspection of Iran’s nuclear activities by the IAEA. Does this mean that Obama is going to show some kind of flexibility toward Iran?
A: Over the past year, President Obama and U.S. negotiators have shown a substantial degree of diplomatic flexibility while pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. This includes, foremost, the acknowledgement in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) that a final agreement will allow for a “mutually-defined” Iranian enrichment program, albeit one that is heavily monitored by international inspectors.
However, the Obama administration’s flexibility has come in spite of the inflexibility of many hawks in the U.S. Congress. Many of these hawks view any Iranian enrichment capacity as an unacceptable risk. They believe that Iran will cheat on its commitments and break out to attain a nuclear weapon, regardless of any enhanced monitoring and verification measures. To block the president from striking what they see as a bad deal, or to simply deny the president a win, they have pursued a number of measures that threaten negotiations.
Earlier this year, a majority of Senators signed onto a bill that would impose new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in violation of U.S. commitments under the JPOA. As Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif indicated, the passage of that bill would have killed the interim agreement. It took the threat of a veto from President Obama and the backing of Senate Democratic leadership to stall that bill and protect the JPOA and initial six-month negotiating window. That fight was far from easy, and is further demonstration of President Obama’s seriousness about striking a nuclear deal.
Since that time, all Congressional attempts to block a deal have been stalled. The recently-introduced bill from Senator Corker, while ostensibly aimed at ensuring that Congress has a say following any final deal, appears to be just another attempt to derail diplomacy. It would accomplish this by setting up a Congressional vote to cut off sanctions relief and any funding necessary to implement the agreement, including contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Q: How the remaining differences between Iran and the 5+1 group can be bridged?
A: Judging from reports, it appears that there has already been a substantial amount of flexibility from both the Obama administration and Iran’s negotiators. Aside from agreeing that a final deal will allow for Iran’s enrichment program to continue, the sides appear to have found common ground on monitoring and verification, the work conducted at the Fordo facility and Arak reactor, and the nature of sanctions relief in a final deal.
The key sticking point, which necessitated the four-month extension, was the ultimate size and scale of Iran’s enrichment program over the course of a final agreement. On this issue, each side chose to take a stand in hopes of getting an agreement that is easier to defend from domestic opponents. To get past the current impasse, both sides will need to show increased flexibility and creativity. Fortunately, there are solutions available if there is political will to pursue them. For example, enhanced inspections of enrichment facilities combined with limitations on the size of Iran’s stockpile could lessen the P5+1’s desire for major reductions on centrifuges. The U.S. and other members of the P5+1 would be wise to explore ways to sweeten the pot to incentivize Iranian flexibility on enrichment capacity, as well.
Q: Do you believe that Iran and P5+1 can finalize a deal in four months?
A: An agreement by November 23 is strongly possible. Each side appears truly committed to the diplomatic process and, as a result, we are closer than we have ever been to a final nuclear deal. A year ago, few analysts predicted that an interim agreement was possible, but now Iran has upheld the interim agreement’s terms and the negotiators have a draft bracketed text of a final agreement, with just a few difficult issues remaining. Opportunities like this don’t come around often, and both Obama and Rouhani likely recognize that this could be their last, best chance to get a final nuclear agreement during their presidencies.
Additionally, there are severe consequences for each side if negotiations collapse. Losing the limitations and enhanced monitoring under the JPOA would be a severe setback for the United States, and Iran would lose the opportunity to prove the peaceful intent of its nuclear program and attain economic relief through the rollback of the sanctions regime. Each side would likely return to a cycle of escalation that could result in war. Diplomatic compromise is far preferable to such eventualities.
However, hardliners in both the U.S. Congress and in Iran could prove the biggest obstacle to a deal. Congress will ultimately have a say over any final agreement and could take steps that would scuttle it – such as by blocking sanctions relief or other measures necessary for the deal’s implementation. Similarly, opponents of President Rouhani have shown an eagerness to strike back against his efforts where they can, particularly in the domestic sphere. If not countered, this opposition risks both weakening Rouhani and undermining prospects for a final agreement.