Recent U.S. and Iran Talks Hold Promise of Breakthrough Agreements

HOUSTON, May 1, 2014 — Negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons capability appear to be on track, with the United States and its partners having “gotten more than they gave away” in a preliminary agreement signed in November, according to Iran expert Suzanne DiMaggio.

Back-channel talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats, running parallel to the official negotiations between Iran and the P5 +1 countries (United States, Great Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany), proved crucial to the agreement freezing elements of Iran’s nuclear program. Parties are making progress toward a late July deadline for a comprehensive agreement, DiMaggio said.

Formerly Vice President of Global Policy Programs at Asia Society, DiMaggio is Senior Fellow and Director of the Southwest Asia Program at the New America Foundation. She has visited Iran four times and since 2002 has participated in unofficial face-to-face talks between U.S. policy experts and high-level Iranians.

In her briefing DiMaggio reviewed the history of the negotiations, citing as crucial a March 2013 meeting in Oman in which Undersecretary of State William Burns told his Iranian counterparts that the United States would consider allowing Iran to maintain a civilian nuclear program if it accepted verifiable limits on its ability to develop nuclear weapons.

“This was really a turning point and made negotiations possible,” DiMaggio said.

Also important was the telephone call President Obama placed in September 2013 to Iran’s newly elected reformist president, Hassan Rouhani.

“It was the first direct diplomatic contact between the two countries’ leaders since 1979,” DiMaggio said. “It was a historic moment.”

“Although the interim deal was agreed among the P5 +1 and Iran,” she said, “it’s clear that the direct bilateral negotiations between Washington and Tehran paved the way and made a deal possible.”

She called the first-stage agreement “a very good deal for the United States and the West.”

The agreement ends Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, bans the installation of advanced centrifuges, and prevents completion of a heavy water reactor that could produce plutonium. It also includes more rigorous forms of verification, DiMaggio said. In exchange, Iran has gotten sanctions relief, which she emphasized was temporary rather than permanent.

DiMaggio downplayed the value of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the West, saying they may have slowed but did not stop Iran’s nuclear programs and may have distorted Iran’s economy in unhelpful ways.

While admitting that sanctions did play some role in getting the parties to where they are today, “They are not a strategy in and of themselves. Instead they need to be used tactically as part of a larger strategy,” she said.

A successful final deal will “have to establish verifiable limits on Iran’s program and substantially increase the time it would take for Iran to break out and build nuclear weapons,” she said. “It would also have to increase the ability to promptly detect and respond to that break out. At the same time, from the Iranians’ point of view, it would have to preserve key elements of their nuclear program, which would include some uranium enrichment on their own soil. It must remove international nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.”

The most difficult issue still to be resolved is how to limit Iran’s enrichment capability to levels appropriate only to peaceful uses, she said. But she also noted that powerful political players in both Iran and the United States as well as Israel oppose the deal and could still scuttle it.

Reported by Fritz Lanham




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