Twelve years of negotiations on how to allow Iran to produce nuclear power while ensuring it can’t produce a nuclear weapon appear to have come down to a handful of details. Whether those final details can be worked out remains an unknown.
Negotiators here let another deadline pass Tuesday without an agreement. A senior State Department official suggested to reporters that a new Friday deadline also could slip. “It’s day to day,” said the official, who could not be further identified under the rules of the briefing.
The official wouldn’t describe what sticking points remained for the negotiators, Iran on one side and six of the world’s most powerful countries – the United States, China France, Great Britain, Russia and Germany – on the other. The official wouldn’t venture even a number of sticking points, though French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters three issues were delaying the deal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there were eight remaining items “to polish.”
The biggest issue at this point from the Iranian perspective, Lavrov said, was the lifting of a U.N. arms embargo on conventional weapons.
Fabius said that for France, the issues remaining are working out “the necessary limitations on nuclear research and development,” the so-called “snap-back” mechanism for re-imposing sanctions if Iran violates the final deal, and resolving questions of the previous military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.
The senior U.S. official likened the remaining differences, however, to the well-known difficulties of a famous toy puzzle, the Rubik’s Cube.
“Until the last piece clicks in, you don’t know if you can get there,” the official said. “You can get 90 percent of the way there, 95 and 99 percent of the way there, and you can’t get there in the end. So I don’t know.”
One thing that all sides appeared to agree won’t stop the negotiations is a deadline. Tuesday was a soft deadline of sorts, set a week ago after the last final deadline was missed.
The new deadline is Friday – 10 days after the June 30 deadline that had been set in April when the negotiators settled on a framework for the deal.
A U.S. State Department official said the latest extension is good news.
“We’ve made substantial progress in every area, but this work is highly technical and high stakes for all of the countries involved,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We’re frankly more concerned about the quality of the deal than we are about the clock, though we also know that difficult decisions won’t get any easier with time – that is why we are continuing to negotiate.”
The implication is that after 12 years of negotiations focusing on essentially the same matters, agreeing to hang around for an extra week or so and finally get a deal is a worthwhile tradeoff. There are limits, but those are set by the realities of the negotiations, not the calendar.
“On any given day, if we feel like we’re just not going to get there, that’ll be that,” the senior official said. “We’re all quite well aware of what is left to be done, and everyone understands that time does not help get those decisions made. Time, in fact, works against those difficult decisions being made.”
The official acknowledged that the negotiations have dragged on – one member of the U.S. delegation has logged 400,000 air miles during the talks.
But the negotiations would become far more difficult if the negotiators all went home to regroup.
“As difficult as it . . . might be for the Americans to go home and deal with the politics of this situation in America, it is pretty darn hard for the Iranians to go home and deal with the politics in Iran,” the official said.
These negotiations are the grandchildren of negotiations started in 2003, when the United States, fearing Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon, and the so-called EU-3 – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – answered an Iranian proposal with extreme caution.
Throughout, the overall point of the negotiations has remained the same: Find a way to allow Iran to produce nuclear energy, yet stop it from taking the next step of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. The production of nuclear power is considered the right of any nation, as long as it can be done in a safe manner.
From their first days, the negotiations have been plagued by mistrust on all sides, mistrust that all sides have agreed would require an ironclad deal to overcome.
The U.S. official repeated that theme. “We will not take a deal that’s not a good deal and is not the right deal,” the official said. “And that remains the case today and it will remain the case until we either get there or we say we cannot.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews