November 19, 2014

Press Note: Prospects for Negotiations with Iran and Nuclear Diplomacy

By Elizabeth Rosenberg, and Ilan Goldenberg

Washington, November 19 – In advance of the November 24th deadline for Iran nuclear negotiations, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Energy, Environment, and Security Program Director Elizabeth Rosenberg and Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg have written a new press note providing context for the negotiations and recommendations for their aftermath. The press note covers three major topics:

  • The potential immediate outcomes of the negotiations
  • The case for continuing negotiations in the case of a partial deal or a deadline extension
  • The diplomatic and political challenges any future negotiations will face

The full press note is below:

As negotiators head towards the November 24 deadline for the Iran nuclear negotiations in Vienna, we should expect neither a full comprehensive agreement nor a complete breakdown. Instead, the most likely scenarios involve interim agreements that could range from a significant step forward involving some concessions on all sides, a partial agreement on some elements, or simply an extension of the status quo. While the best outcome for advancing nuclear security and future diplomacy with Iran would clearly be a major breakthrough in the negotiations, a continuation of talks and a perpetuation of the status quo would be far superior to a total breakdown. The durability of any agreement or the durability of continued nuclear diplomacy will depend on how key constituencies including the U.S. Congress, Iranian hardliners, Israeli and Saudi skeptics, and the countries negotiating with Iran (the P5+1) behave in the aftermath of the deadline. 

What to Expect in Vienna

An outcome that would be most promising for nuclear diplomacy, though probably the least likely, is an agreement on a framework or a declaration of principles that outlines the key parameters of a broad deal. Technical experts would then follow up with additional negotiations on the details. Such an agreement would need to ensure that the United States and the international community have high confidence that they could detect and stop any move by Iran towards a nuclear weapon either through a breakout using Iran’s existing nuclear facilities or a “sneak out” using clandestine sites.

A framework agreement would cover the range of nuclear issues under discussion, and would likely include an agreement on both the size of the stockpile of enriched uranium and the number of centrifuges that Iran could keep. It would ensure that this combination would leave Iran approximately one year away from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb. Iran would also have to convert the Fordow facility into a research and development site that has no practical use for nuclear weapons. There would need to be modifications to the Arak heavy water reactor to ensure it is no longer capable of rapidly producing the amount of plutonium necessary for a nuclear weapon. Iran would have to account for some of its previous weaponization work, though a full accounting is unrealistic and may not be necessary to ensure Iran cannot replicate such activities in the future without being caught. The agreement would have rigorous inspections and verification mechanisms far more onerous than even the IAEA’s Additional Protocol to ensure Iran is not cheating.

From a sanctions standpoint, the deal would include a roadmap for how to incrementally offer economic relief for Iran as it meets its various obligations, eventually resulting in the full relaxation of nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Such relief likely would feature a greater ability for Iran to sell oil and repatriate the revenues, expand Iran’s international trade in more economic sectors, access over $100bn in reserves locked up abroad and give the Iranian banking sector greater access to international financial systems and payment clearing platforms. These technical measures will require binding policy changes by the Council of the European Union as well as the Obama Administration’s use of temporary, renewable waivers and action under executive order authorities. Eventually, Congress would need to act to remove sanctions statutes from the books in order to offer a fuller measure of relief. Finally, an overall deal would have to be an agreed upon timeframe for full implementation, likely more than ten years but less than twenty. 

Such a deal is unlikely at this point given how far apart the parties reportedly are. But we may not know until the very last minute as the two sides may be holding back their most significant concessions until the last moment, and the ultimate decision on the Iranian side rests with the Supreme Leader who may not show his cards until then. 

A second scenario would involve a partial deal. For example, Iran could agree to modifications to the Arak reactor or Fordow facility in exchange for additional sanctions relief and an agreement by the parties to continue to negotiate on the other items. Such an outcome would allow both sides to demonstrate progress and build confidence even as they continue to negotiate on the tougher issues where agreement may not yet be achievable.

However, the terms of such an agreement may be too complicated to negotiate in a short time. The various pieces of the nuclear program are all interconnected and partial deals may not make sense from a technical perspective. Both sides may also be hesitant about locking in what they see as major concessions in the absence of a final deal, since it would reduce their bargaining leverage in a final agreement.

The third and most likely scenario is a simple extension of the status quo. Iran would continue to receive some very limited commercial sector sanctions relief, though no new cash injections from its reserves held in escrow abroad, and would keep its nuclear program frozen as it has over the past year. This is the simplest outcome to negotiate but also the most vulnerable politically. Failure to show progress in negotiations could lead opponents in both Iran and the United States to argue for walking away from the table and in the aftermath of the deadline it may be difficult to hold off congressional action or steps by hardliners in Tehran that could sabotage a future deal. 

The Importance of Continued Nuclear Diplomacy

While short of breakthrough, the possibility of a simple extension of nuclear talks is preferable to the collapse of negotiations. Over the past year the Joint Plan of Action has delivered important progress toward international counter-proliferation goals. Iran has frozen its nuclear program for the first time since 2005 and has diluted its stock of 20% LEU in exchange for only limited sanctions relief. It has also allowed the international community much greater visibility into its nuclear program. 

The alternative to nuclear diplomacy would see Iran resume progress on its nuclear program, a significant scale down of IAEA inspections, the probable marginalization of the diplomatically-minded Rouhani and rise of hardliners in Iran, the imposition of even more punishing sanctions and the possible breakup of the international coalition working to isolate Iran. Such an outcome would not promote greater security for anyone involved, and would be a potentially irreversible setback for a diplomatic resolution to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. In all likelihood, it would eventually force the United States and its remaining partners to face the terrible choice between the use of military force or allowing Iran to become a nuclear weapons state.

Just the Beginning

At end of the day, the most delicate and complicated dance will be the one that comes following the end of the talks. After November 24, no matter which of the above scenarios unfolds, the American and Iranian negotiators will have to manage four key constituencies that could either support a deal or fundamentally undercut it: (1) the U.S. Congress; (2) Iranian hardliners; (3) Nervous allies  - most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia; and (4) P5+1 partners – especially Russia and China.The American and Iranian negotiating teams are in an unenviable position of having to maneuver a very complex set of stakeholders. 

If Obama and Rouhani arrive upon a deal or agree on principles they will have to sell the outcome as a positive one, a task that will involve a tremendous effort to hold back a groundswell of hostile disapproval from hawks. Even if they can do this, it will be another herculean task to convince the private sector that relief from sanctions offered under a potential deal will be credible and durable. Most international investors, including all multinational companies that use the dollar, the U.S. financial system or employ U.S. citizens--all of which expose them to U.S. sanctions--will be extremely cautious about pursuing deals at which Congress may take aim under future sanctions.

Even in a best-case scenario at the conclusion of talks by next week’s deadline, there is still a very long road ahead to manage and degrade Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. The tensions among stakeholders now are merely a shadow of the conflict that will play out over the coming months. This is nowhere more true than in Washington, where the Administration and members of Congress are now digging in for a prolonged struggle.

Goldenberg and Rosenberg are available for interviews on the deadline and the status of nuclear negotiations. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at, or call 202-457-9409.


  • Elizabeth Rosenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics and Security Program

    Elizabeth Rosenberg is a former Senior Fellow and Director of the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. In this capacity, she publ...

  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...