Talks over Iran’s nuclear program are bogging down because Tehran’s negotiators are reluctant to put in writing previous concessions that may be deeply unpopular at home, current and former diplomats said Tuesday.
With the negotiations’ June 30 deadline about a month away, the Iranian team is balking at important decisions, saying it wants to leave them for top officials who are to arrive just before the deadline, Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, said on a panel at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
As a result, it is now “very likely” that deal won't be completed until early July, Araud said. If an agreement is reached, additional time may be required to put the general terms of the deal into specific technical language, he said.
“It's going to be extremely complicated,” he said. “We could have a sort of fuzzy end to the negotiations.”
The United States and five other world powers have been trying to negotiate a deal with Iran that would give the Middle East nation relief from economic sanctions if it agrees to restrictions aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The negotiating group, which includes France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, reached a preliminary agreement April 2.
Yet the slowdown is a sign of trouble, reflecting the fact that the Iranian elite remains deeply divided on key aspects of the deal.
Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert and a former member of the U.S. team of negotiators, said he believes the biggest potential stumbling block is whether international inspectors will have access to Iranian military bases. In Tehran, hard-liners and military officials — and at times Iran's supreme leader — have declared that such access would violate the Islamic Republic’s sovereignty and would never be acceptable.
But Western governments view access to the bases as an essential part of any deal because of the need for full transparency to ensure that Iran is not secretly working on a nuclear weapon, said Nephew, who is with Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.
Until now, Iranian negotiators have been able to finesse several sticky issues because they haven't had to commit their verbal agreements in writing. But that's changing, as negotiators are required to fill in the technical language of an agreement, he said.
“If the political environment in Tehran can't support agreement on this, things will fall apart,” Nephew said.
He said he believed the Obama administration would not accept a deal without full transparency because such an agreement couldn't be sold in the United States or in European capitals.
“This is nonnegotiable, from Washington's point of view,” he said.
But the Iranians also feel strongly about it, Nephew said, because access to bases would mean that inspectors would be peering at Iran's defenses at a time when U.S. officials are saying publicly that they reserve the right to bomb the country if necessary to halt its nuclear program.
Peter Wittig, Germany's ambassador to the United States, who also appeared at the Atlantic Council, also noted the slowdown in the talks, saying they had been proceeding “at a rather slow pace on the expert level.”
“The most difficult path may lie ahead of us,” he said.
Another contentious issue that remains is the pace at which Iran would receive relief from sanctions. Iranian officials have demanded that sanctions relief come soon after the agreement is reached.
But Wittig said that sanctions might not be lifted at all this year because of the requirement that Iran first scale back its nuclear program and that United Nations inspectors then verify that it has done so.
“Iran needs some time to start the implementation of the agreement,” Wittig said. “So in the best case, sanctions relief would not happen before the end of this year.”
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