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How Three of the Iran Negotiations’ Toughest Issues Were Resolved

Few surprises emerged in the nuclear deal with Iran, but here’s how other difficult issues were resolved.

The 159-page text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the six powers led by the United States does not contain any major surprises about the two central elements of the agreement – limits on the Iranian nuclear program and the timing and sequencing of lifting sanctions. And there is nothing in the text about the last major issue to be resolved – how the Security Council’s new resolution will deal with the arms embargo and ban on the Iranian ballistic missile program.

But details provided in the official text help confirm information available from other sources on the other two toughest issues: IAEA access to “suspicious sites” and the past allegations of Iranian work on nuclear weapons.

Below are brief accounts of what we now know about how these three major negotiating issues were resolved during the Vienna round of negotiations. The three issues are of particular interest because they have all been the most clearly linked to the politics of Israeli and Saudi opposition to the agreement.

1. Access to “Suspicious Sites”

The issue on which the Obama administration promoted the toughest line publicly was its insistence that Iran had to open its territory to inspections upon demand by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That demand reached the peak of its intensity in April when the administration, under pressure from a pro-Israel Republican majority in the Senate that had demanded “anywhere, anytime inspections” of “suspicious sites,” claimed in a fact sheet and in a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that the United States had achieved such language in the April 2 Lausanne framework outlining a final agreement. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes even said Iran would be required to let the IAEA into military sites that the agency wanted to visit.

In fact, the Obama administration’s claim went far beyond the general language agreed on in Lausanne on the Iranian provision of access. And a statement by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reacted to the Obama administration claims by insisting vehemently that Iran would not open its military sites to inspectors. US officials then began suggesting that the supreme leader was forcing Iranian negotiators to withdraw previous concessions. In fact, as an Iranian official explained to this writer on condition that he not be identified, Khamenei’s statement was intended to push back against what had been perceived as a US effort to exploit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to obtain sensitive information on Iran’s military sites.

In fact, both sides made concessions to reach agreement on the access issue. The JCPOA incorporates language that Iran wanted to ensure that no IAEA inspections could be used to obtain information on military sites. “In line with normal international safeguards practices,” it says, “requests [for access] will not be aimed at interfering with Iran’s military or national security activities. …” It adds further that the provisions on access are “without prejudice” to the Additional Protocol, which allows Iran to use techniques of “managed access” to ensure against such intrusion on its national security.

The JCPOA provides that the IAEA will express any concerns about a specific site to Iran, and if Iran’s explanations are not sufficient, the IAEA can request access to the site along with all “relevant information” about the reasons for the request. Alternately, if the IAEA and Iran have not agreed on arrangements to solve the problem within 14 days, the two will consult with the “Joint Commission,” consisting of representatives of all the parties to the agreement, including the EU, to resolve the IAEA’s concerns. If that consultation also fails, the Joint Commission will decide on whether the visit will go ahead by a vote of five of its eight members.

Iran clearly would have preferred to avoid having a majority vote in the Joint Commission determine the outcome of an access issue. On the other hand, the sequence of consultations in which Iran would have ample opportunity to present the case that the reasoning behind the request lacks credibility will discourage the kind of requests for inspection at undeclared sites the IAEA has carried out in Iran in the past, based on the flimsiest evidence.

2. “Possible Military Dimensions”

For months before the final agreement, news media were reporting that Iran’s refusal to “come clean” about its alleged past work on nuclear weapons – the issue the IAEA began in 2008 to call “possible military dimensions” – was a key sticking point in the negotiations. It was generally understood that Iran would have to agree to IAEA interviews with an extensive list of Iranian scientists. As late as July 1, The New York Times’ David Sanger was still reporting that the unwillingness of Iran to allow such interviews was a key sticking point in the negotiations.

The United States did indeed propose after the Lausanne agreement that Iran allow access to a lengthy list of scientists and current or former military and Defense Ministry officials. But an Iranian diplomat in Vienna, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information explained to this writer, said Iran rejected that proposal and proposed instead the completion a process of resolving issues based on intelligence documents described in the IAEA’s November 2011 report. Mohamed ElBaradei, the previous director-general of IAEA had refused to use that same intelligence as evidence, on the grounds that it had not been authenticated, and he revealed in his memoirs that much of it had come from Israel.

That process, to which Iran and the IAEA agreed in 2014, involves Iran’s responses to 12 accusations based on those intelligence documents. But in previous negotiations on such a process in 2012, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano had refused to contemplate any endpoint to it. And after Iran successfully explained the first issue – the purpose of its “exploding bridgewire” program – and provided documentation to support it in March 2014, Amano indicated that he would not provide any official assessment of the Iranian explanation and supporting documentation until all of 12 issues had been resolved. By then the negotiations with the P5+1 had already begun, and Iran realized that the best way to ensure that Amano would deliver a final assessment promptly was to link the process to the final nuclear agreement.

Early in the Vienna round of talks, a three-way understanding was reached among Iran, Secretary Kerry and Amano, according to the Iranian official in Vienna. The accord involved agreement that Iran would complete its explanations on all 12 issues – and answer IAEA questions about linkages among the individual issues – by a specific date, and that Amano would submit his final report a few weeks later. Even more important, Amano pledged that the final report would give equal weight to Iran’s explanations for the intelligence, so it would provide, for the first time in the IAEA’s long history of reporting on Iran, “two narratives” on the issue, rather than the familiar IAEA line of argument that intelligence documents are “credible.”

The JCOPA text says Iran will complete the implementation of an agreement with the IAEA, called the “Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues,” by October 15, 2015, and that Amano will provide his “final assessment” of the “resolution” of those issues by December 15. The crucial political event underlying those new dates, according to the Iranian official, was the understanding between Kerry and Amano of how his assessment would fit into the timeline for lifting sanctions.

3. The Arms Embargo and The Missile Program

The biggest question marks in the final days of the negotiations was how the new UN Security Council resolution would deal with the conventional arms embargo and an embargo on Iran’s ballistic missile program in previous Security Council resolutions. The old resolutions, passed between 2006 and 2010, will be nullified by the new agreement. The United States and its European allies were telling journalists they were demanding that the arms embargo must be reinstated in some form. Iran, supported by both Russia and China, was insisting that it had to be terminated.

More than any other issue under negotiation, the arms embargo and sanctions on Iran’s missile program were matters of political symbolism. The Security Council resolution’s language on the embargo had no practical impact on Iran during the seven years in which it had been in effect. Iran had continued to provide arms to Hezbollah and to the Assad regime in Syria, starting in 2011, and to develop its conventional military force without external assistance. And the Iranian ballistic missile program has continued to develop as a key element of Iran’s deterrent to Israeli and US attack regardless of the embargo on it.

For Iran the issue was not the practical effect of the sanctions but the principle at stake. “It’s a question of removing all the sanctions,” said one Iranian official during the final round of talks. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complained to Kerry that the US position on those betrayed an “emotional attachment” to sanctions, according to another Iranian official who requested anonymity.

Under pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia, however, the Obama administration was anxious to demonstrate that it was vigorously combating what it began to call Iran’s “malign influence” in the region (despite the fact that Iran is the only Middle Eastern state in the region to be firmly opposed to both the Islamic State and the al Nusra Front). The Obama administration went to great lengths during the Vienna negotiations to convince both domestic and foreign audiences that the United States was insistent on keeping the arms embargo and embargo on Iran’s missile program in place.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “Our concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region remain. That’s why the sanctions related to those activities will remain, regardless of whether we get a deal or not.” And on July 7, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey went even further in statements to the Senate Armed Services Committee that appeared to suggest that the Obama administration was taking a hard line on those issues. In response to a question about the arms embargo, Carter declared, “We want them to continue to be isolated as a military and limited in terms of the kind of equipment and material [they possess].” Dempsey chimed in, “Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.”

Those statements conveyed the impression that the US was taking an inflexible line in the negotiations on the arms and missile embargos. But the evidence suggests that the US was more flexible in the actual negotiations than its public diplomacy suggested.

An unnamed US official in Vienna had hinted on July 7 that the arms embargo and the embargo against Iran’s missile program would become “restrictions” that would become “less onerous” than they have been in the past. After the final text of JCPOA was agreed upon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “In the next five years, deliveries of arms to Iran will be possible under the conditions of the relevant procedures, notification and verification by the UN Security Council.” Presumably, the same terms apply to Iranian exports of arms as well.

As for the embargo against the ballistic missile program, the new resolution reportedly imposes a ban for another eight years, but is also subject to termination when the IAEA issues a judgment that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But the understanding between Kerry and Amano to resolve the issue of allegations of past Iranian nuclear work does not apply to the question of the peaceful nature of the program. Amano is not scheduled to make that judgment for another eight years, according to the terms of the deal, coinciding with the period of the ban on trade related to Iran’s missile program in place.

The text of the new Security Council resolution is not part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the arms embargo and sanction against the missile program remain an irritant to Iran that does nothing to prevent it from carrying out policies that it regards as essential to its national security.

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