- On November 24, the P5+1 and Iran announced a seven-month extension of the interim Joint Plan of Action following an inability to reach a final status agreement by the deadline.
- The extension itself, along with the presence of Iran’s and all P5+1 Foreign Ministers during the conclusion of this last round of talks, underscores the continued interest in reaching a final status agreement, while Tehran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, as well as sanctions relief, likely remain key points of contention in talks.
- An interest in reaching an agreement prior to the allotted seven-month deadline is likely encouraged further by calls for more sanctions against Iran from the US Congress, which will be controlled by the Republicans in January, and concerns that a lack of significant day-to-day economic improvement in the country may result in opposition to talks.
- Western nationals are advised against all nonessential travel to Iran due to persistent negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European nations.
Iran Nuclear Talks: Current Situation
US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on November 24 the deadline for the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) agreed between Iran and the P5+1, that a further seven month extension of talks had been agreed upon during this round of negotiations in Vienna, Austria. Although a seven month extension would bring the new deadline to June 24, 2015, Iran’s official news agency reported that it will be June 30, while British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated that the interim deal will be extended “until June next year”. At the conclusion of this round of talks, the foreign ministers from all P5+1 countries, as well as EU’s Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, were in attendance.
- During his statement, Kerry also stated that “in these last days in Vienna”, the P5+1 and Iran “made real and substantial progress” and “new ideas surfaced”. He went on to state that the extension comes with “the very specific goal of finishing the political agreement within four months and with the understanding that we we will go to work immediately, meet again very shortly, and if we can do it sooner we want to do it sooner”. If, at the conclusion of these four months, the negotiating parties “have not agreed on the major elements… and there is no clear path, we can revisit how we then want to choose to proceed”. Unconfirmed reports state that the parties will meet again in December.
- As part of this extension, as it was with the previous extension agreed upon in July, Iran will reportedly be receiving a portion of its frozen funds, paid out in installments and totaling 700 million USD per month.
- This extension follows the issuance of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on November 7 regarding the status of Iran’s nuclear program and agreements. According to the report, Iran has not enriched uranium higher than five percent “at any of its declared facilities” while “all of its stock” of higher-enriched uranium “has been further processed through downblending or conversion into uranium oxide”. It further stated that “no additional major components have been installed at the IR-40 Reactor” referring to the reactor at the Arak Heavy Water Plant”, and that “Iran has continued to provide the Agency with managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities”.
- On November 10, the IAEA issued a correction to the November 7 report, stating that enrichment of up to five percent uranium has increased to 8290.3 kg (the November 7 report placed this figure at 8390.3 kg).
- The report also states that Iran has not provided additional information to allow the IAEA “to clarify the outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures”, which was requested by the agency on September 4 as well as again on October 8. This is connected to “five practical measures” agreed upon as part of the November 11, 2013 “Framework of Cooperation”, to be implemented by August 25. However, at the time of writing, only three have been implemented, including two of the three after the deadline. This is despite two “technical meetings” between the IAEA and Iran on November 2 and October 7. Reports indicate that resolution of this issue was temporarily postponed ahead of the final round of talks in Vienna.
- The agreed-upon extension, along with reports, including statements from Kerry, that progress was achieved prior to the extension’s announcement, underline the parties’ continued interest in reaching a final status agreement. Such interest was further highlighted by the attendance of the foreign ministers from all involved parties, along with the EU’s Catherine Ashton. This included the last-minute arrival of the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, reportedly during the evening hours of November 23 and the morning of November 24, respectively. This suggested an effort to make a final push toward an agreement or at least progress on the remaining contentious issues. In this context, while an agreement was unable to be reached by the now-extended November 24 deadline, the four month “deadline within a deadline” also points to an interest in resolving this issue prior to June 2015. This is also underscored by Kerry’s statement that they “will go to work immediately” as well as Zarif’s iteration that they “do not intend to use the whole period”. This all serves to suggest that the unconfirmed reports of talks resuming in December are credible.
- Amidst reports of progress, upcoming talks are likely to continue to focus largely on Iran’s enrichment capabilities, which has reportedly been one of the main ongoing contentious issues. In this context, we continue to assess that, for the P5+1, enrichment capabilities involves ensuring that Iran’s breakout capability is limited, referring to the amount of time in which Tehran could produce a sufficient amount of “bomb-grade” material. For Iran, this capability needs to be at a level able of maintaining what its perceives as a sufficient civilian nuclear program, with previous reports indicating that Iran has estimated its requirements at 190,000 separative work units (SWU), which refers to a standard measure of enrichment. Reports indicate that discussions have focused on the number of permitted centrifuges, rather than SWUs, with reports from a government-linked Iranian news source previously reporting that Iran was offered as part of an agreement, and rejected, to operate 4,700 first generation (IR-1) centrifuges. Researchers on this issue have reported that the IR-1 reactors have an enrichment capability of between 0.7 and 1.0 SWU per year. With this in mind, it cannot be ruled out than any final agreement will include enrichment capabilities based on SWUs rather than numbers of centrifuges.
- Moreover, Iran’s negotiating team needs to mitigate perceptions of excessive capitulation to the P5+1 demands, given that the civilian nuclear program maintains widespread support and the presence of hardliners, some of which are opposed to the negotiations themselves. This is underlined by reports that approximately 200-300 hardliners protested near Tehran’s Research Reactor on November 23 criticizing the nuclear negotiations. The protest reportedly received official approval and the participants, in addition to chanting “Death to America”, demanded that negotiators refuse to give into excessive Western demands.
- Other disputed topics will be discussed as well, with reports that sanctions relief, and particularly the speed of such relief, has been one such topic. The P5+1, and particularly Western parties, may be aiming for a more gradual removal dependant on Iranian adherence to the final agreement, while Iran is likely looking for the opposite given its interest in improving its still struggling economy. In this context, Tehran is liable to see sanctions on its banking, oil, and gas industries as the most essential for removal. Conversely, sanctions that were implemented by certain parties, including the US, for humanitarian issues or Iran’s support for militant groups, are likely to remain in place even in the event of an agreement.
- Iran’s aforementioned failure to implement two of the five practical measures agreed upon with the IAEA is liable to also remain an overarching issue. While the Framework of Cooperation is a separate agreement signed with the IAEA, much of the information requested in such practical measures have been part of the JPoA, pointing to the connection between the two. Moreover, given that the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program was what triggered the initial sanctions and ultimately talks to begin with, the failure to provide information requested by the IAEA may raise concerns and suspicions among negotiating parties, while likely does not serve to instill confidence. That said, given the postponement of this issue until the November 24 deadline, we assess that meetings between the IAEA and Iran will resume in the coming months with the aim of implementing the final two measures and agreeing to more. Iran’s interest in achieving a final status agreement, underlined in previous assessments and highlighted by the IAEA report that confirms its continued adherence to the JPoA, is liable to serve as encouragement in this regard. Moreover, it is also possible that any such final agreement will include a provision stipulating continued Iranian adherence to the Framework of Cooperation.
- Moreover, we do assess that, while talks have, thus far, steadily continued without significant interruption, there remain events that could serve to directly affect talks. This includes reports that Republicans in the US Congress, who will have a majority in both houses in January 2015, have called for action with regard to Iran come January. A joint statement, for example, was released by three Republican Senators on November 24 stating that they “believe the latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal with Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval”. That said, the JPoA states that “the US Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions”, while Iran would certain perceive such action as being in violation. Despite this, we assess that US President Barack Obama’s interest in achieving an agreement, coupled with his previous statement that he would veto any legislation involving new sanctions, reduces the potential for congressional activity to derail talks.
- Finally, the effort to reach an agreement in a shorter time span than the seven months allotted may also be connected to a recognition that, in addition to the previously-discussed alteration in the makeup of US Congress, patience with the ongoing talks, that will hit a year’s mark in January, could diminish. This includes in Iran, with reports that day-to-day economic difficulties have persisted. While the official news agency reported on November 26 that inflation has reduced to 17.8 percent in the month ending November 21, reports suggest that the cost of food has increased in 2014 and unemployment remains relatively high. This includes among the 16-24 age group, with reports that the official unemployment rate is nearly 23 percent among this population and allegations that unofficial rates are higher. In this context, the release of frozen funds and limited sanctions relief, along with policies implemented by Rouhani, have worked to gradually assist in improving the country’s economic situation, particularly macroeconomically and especially when compared to previous months when inflation was as high as 40 percent.
- That said, the aim of such sanctions relief and release of frozen assets was likely intended to allow some improvement to Iran’s economy, but not so much that motivation to reach a final status agreement would be removed. Thus, while some of the population may perceive the improvement witnessed as indicators that a final status agreement would spur further developments, the absence of significant day-to-day improvement may also trigger reduced support for talks. Potential opposition to Rouhani’s policies from this sector, in conjunction with the aforementioned existing discontent among more conservative, anti-Western, and hardline members of society, could increase pressure on negotiators. At this point however, and amidst persistent anti-Western rhetoric, the country’s Supreme Leader continues to demonstrate support for Rouhani, while the interest in removing sanctions may serve to overcome any emerging or growing opposition.
- Western nationals are advised against all nonessential travel to Iran due to persistent negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European nations. For non-Western nationals, travel to Tehran, Esfahan, and other major cities in Iran may continue while adhering to basic security precautions regarding civil unrest and adherence to cultural norms.
- We advise against all nonessential travel to outlying border areas with Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, and Armenia due to ongoing militant activity.
- Those traveling to Iran should anticipate prolonged questioning by customs officials. Refrain from traveling with sophisticated cameras or other features affiliated with journalists. Cooperate with all security officials and respond to questioning in a respectable and calm manner.
- Refrain from discussing the current political situation, Iran’s nuclear program, or tensions with the United States and Israel with local residents as a basic precaution. Be advised that authorities may monitor communications from hotels and other facilities frequented by foreigners, while internet access may be limited.
In the event that embassy services are required, it is advised to check the operational status of pertinent embassies and consulates. Consular services for US citizens are provided through the auspices of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, while those for British citizens are provided through any EU embassy.