Q&A: Iran nuclear negotiations

Expert says Iran and its rivals may enter dangerous territory if talks under way in Vienna fail to cover the major gaps.

Three months after an interim agreement was reached, final negotiations for Iran’s nuclear programme between Iran and six major powers are under way in the Austrian capital Vienna. With days to go until the deadline, agreement has not been reached on major parts of the deal. Key sticking points include Iran’s refusal to grant international inspectors access to military sites. In an interview to Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor James Bays, Richard Nephew, programme director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a former US negotiator, says if the talks fail, Iran and its rivals may enter dangerous territory.

Al Jazeera: How close are the two sides of the deal now?

Richard Nephew: I think we’re pretty close. I think that some key issues, like for instance centrifuge numbers, how certain facilities are going to be modified, have been agreed. And those were important steps, those were agreed to in Lausanne. I do think that some issues remain, like for instance on access and transparency, are major issues and so it’s not impossible that this whole thing falls apart. I do think though, ultimately, the interest on both sides is for a deal.

Al Jazeera: Do you think there is a scenario of extending again?

Nephew: Oh sure, sure. I actually think that it’s more likely than not that if the talks are looking like they are coming to an impasse, like for instance on the issue of transparency and access, that it’s highly likely that the talks will be extended.

Because as you say, nobody wants this to fall apart.

Al Jazeera: On the other side of that, I’m assuming that the P5+1 know that the Iranians might possibly like an extension.

Nephew: I think they might, but I think at the end of the day an extension cuts against their interest more than it does cuts for. I mean, frankly, the joint plan of action, assuming that it remains in place, holds Iran’s nuclear programme still, whereas the sanctions relief doesn’t really empower them or their economy. So I think ultimately it’s the Iranians who are under the real practical time crunch, not the P5+1.

Al Jazeera: Would you describe that as a good deal or just the best deal one can get?

Nephew: Well, to some extent those are the same. The answer is the same to both. I think that it is the best deal that is possible, considering how far Iran’s nuclear programme has moved, but also how far the sanctions have moved in terms of pressing Iran on that nuclear programme. The Iranians don’t want to make a deal that restricts the number of centrifuges or grants wide access to its nuclear programme and undeclared facilities. But they do want the sanctions to be off. And so I think ultimately it’s the best deal that both sides are able to achieve.

Al Jazeera: But haven’t the US and its allies have made big concessions here?

Nephew: They have but I think, you know, so too have the Iranians. The Iranian position for the longest time was, they weren’t going to restrict their nuclear programme in any fashion. They weren’t going to allow access to undeclared facilities. And they are still saying that. I think, ultimately, if there is a deal, they will have to reverse course on those things as well. So, ultimately, a deal is going to be a compromise on both sides. The key issues is, does the compromise achieve the interest of both sides? And I think that it will.

Al Jazeera: What is the alternative to this deal?

Nephew: Well, I think the alternative for the US is to escalate sanctions pressure on the Iranians, hopeful that a new Iranian position will emerge from that process. I frankly don’t think that that is likely. I think at some point the Iranians are going to make a decision that a deal is not worth it if it requires them to be indignified and humiliated in some fashion in the international community. And I don’t think that they are going to accept that. So I do think that ultimately this takes you down the path towards regime change and military force.

Al Jazeera: So if there is no deal we enter very dangerous territory?

Nephew: Absolutely. Absolutely, we will definitely enter dangerous territory and I think that this is part of the reason why we’re going to put in a lot of hours and the team is going to be there potentially over time in order to get a deal.

Al Jazeera: Are there implications of this deal that could be positive?

Nephew: I think so. It is just a nuclear deal. But ultimately it’s also a deal about the future of Iran’s economy, its integration with the international community. I think that if Iran is integrated after a period of sanctions and pressure and isolation, the Iranian people are going to resist any move that can put them back in the doghouse internationally. Ultimately, I think, that helps in terms of addressing other regional problems. And certainly it will help with the evolution of Iranian society, towards a more hopefully moderate, peaceful and stable one.

Al Jazeera: Is there a danger that, because of the pause in talks after the interim agreement in Lausanne, that some of the agreement that has already been made might be unravelling a bit?

Nephew: Absolutely I think that is a risk any time you have an initial agreement and you have to go back and finish off. But this is ultimately why a final document must be drafted. It must be comprehensive, it must be detailed. Because while you can deal with interpretation issues now, you cannot have interpretation issues as you are implementing the final comprehensive deal.

Al Jazeera: Is there a danger that if there is a deal in Vienna, it could be renegotiated again when it comes to the UN Security Council in New York?

Nephew: I don’t think so. I mean ultimately you do have the permanent five members of the Security Council present in the negotiation. I think that they themselves understand the dynamics here in New York and will work to put a resolution together that will reflect the interests of the broader council. Now ultimately the US or any other P5 member can’t speak for the broader UN membership or the UN Security Council membership. But I don’t actually see much risk of the deal being re-negotiated in New York given the stakes.

Al Jazeera: Some diplomats have said they believe that actually language on the resolution is among the work that’s going on in Vienna right now.

Nephew: Yes, I would imagine so. And that’s not too surprising. I mean resolutions are seldom drafted by full 15 members. They are often drafted by one party maybe two, maybe three co-sponsors. So this shouldn’t be too surprising. The key issue is, will the resolutions protect the broader interests of the UN and the Security Council? If it does that, I am confident the broader membership of the Security Council will endorse it.

Al Jazeera: In terms of the snapback provisions, do you think there is a form of words, a way of doing this that can satisfy both sides?

Nephew: I think so. I think it’s going to take a lot of creative drafting. It’s going to take a lot of work on the part of both P5+1 and the Iranians to find a process that protects both Iran’s interest for essentially a fair hearing if there are any violations reported as well as protect the interest of the veto-holding members of the P5. But I think again ultimately snapback is in really all interests. I think it preserves for the P5+1 the ability to respond to Iranian violations, and for the Iranians it gives the P5+1 the comfort that they need to make the kind of nuclear deal that Iran wants. So, ultimately, though they won’t like snapback, they’ll resist snapback, they’d appreciate it if it weren’t in the resolution and in any kind of sanctions provisions, the Iranians know snapback gets them a lot in terms of P5+1 acceptance.

Al Jazeera: How will they make sure that Iran is sticking to what has been agreed? 

Nephew: Well, I think the key issue there will be verification and access. I mean, ultimately, the international inspectors have the ability to go to Iran’s declared nuclear sites as well as to undeclared facilities, they’ll be able to provide enough reports and information that will give confidence that violations aren’t taking place. But really this is a reason why you need to have some kind of conversation with Iran after the deal is done. Because there are going to be violations, there are going to be implementation challenges, and there are going to be inconsistencies. Some of them are going to be honest mistakes. Some of them might be intentional violations that are being uncovered. The key issue will be knowing how to discern between the two of them and have a conversation among all sides so that way you don’t have a dangerous breach of the deal later on.

Al Jazeera: Aren’t there some that Iran has already been giving the IAEA the runaround for many years?

Nephew: That’s right, and Iran has. And I don’t think we should split hairs here. The Iranians have been trying to avoid IAEA inspections for a long time. And I think this is why the United States, at least, and I think the broader P5+1, are so insistent that the final deal spell out IAEA rights. Because I don’t think anyone wants a situation to develop five years from now, where there’s an interpretation issue, of whether or not the IAEA will be able to go to this site or that site. And I think ultimately, if it’s written down if it’s spelled out, that’ll make a response to Iranian failure to cooperate that much easier to execute.

Al Jazeera: What about inspections at military sites?

Nephew: Right, and I think ultimately the Iranians understand that under conventional IAEA inspections taken under the additional protocol, military sites are fair game. You know, if you are a non-nuclear weapons state, you cannot have any atomic military secrets. Now, I think for the Iranians, they just don’t want to see that abused. Which I can understand and appreciate. But they have to understand and appreciate that their military nuclear programme was conducted on military sites for 15 years. They’re not going to be be able to get to a comprehensive deal with a comprehensive sanctions relief while this remains off limits to the IAEA.

Al Jazeera: What has been agreed on Iranian enrichment?

Nephew: Well, again we don’t have complete details yet, but I think the deal appears to be that Iran will have 5,000 centrifuges that it can operate for the first 10 years, with an additional 1,000 centrifuges installed but not operating. And the Iranians will also be permitted to continue enriching but with their uranium enriched product being removed, diluted, exported – something when it reaches a level above 300 kg. The result of this will be that you’ll have at least a year break-out time from the moment Iran decides to try and get a nuclear weapon using enriched uranium. Because restrictions on its physical capacity and available uranium will be so small.

Al Jazeera: We know that bit is a 10-year deal. But then there’s been quite a bit of controversy in the negotiations of what happens after 10 years.

Nephew: That’s right, and I think this is again one of those unresolved issues I mean ultimately the 10- to 15-year period is critical if Iran is able to do any advanced centrifuge research that it wants during that time, it will help them when they get to year 15. On the other hand if they are still subject to some kind of restrictions, they’ll be hampered when they get to year 15. Figuring out the right mix and where this deal is to leave off at year 15, I think, is a critical issue looking forward.

Al Jazeera: Explain to us the whole issue of Arak and plutonium. Because it’s quite confusing: you have two different nuclear technologies here.

Nephew: Right. I think basically the plutonium track has been solved in terms of Iranian nuclear weapons. I mean the way that reactors work is that once they used enriched uranium, they produce plutonium. The issue is that the plutonium can have a variety of different strengths and quantities. The Arak reactor is going to be modified so that it does not produce weapons grade plutonium. Simultaneously there will be restrictions on Iran’s ability to take that plutonium out of its field. Iran won’t be able to do it. And they won’t be able to research how. So essentially the plutonium that is produced at the Arak reactor won’t be useful for weapons and can’t even be extracted anyway. Last, the plutonium that is in that spent fuel is going to be part of the spent fuel removal that takes place when it’s been ejected from the reactor. So ultimately the Arak reactor has been solved assuming that the deal holds from April.

Al Jazeera: In your view how important is it that we know exactly how Iran in the past went about its nuclear activities?

Nephew: I think it’s important from a generic standpoint. You want to know how far Iran got in towards building a nuclear comb and you want to have a very clear understanding as to what kind of equipment and technology they have in the country. But I think what the secretary [Kerry] was trying to say is ultimately we do know an awful lot, and the real question is what more would this additional information get us about what the Iranians have been up to and what they could potentially do in the future. I think so far as access and transparency is granted to the places where they were engaged in nuclear weapon research, to ensure they are not doing it in the future, we really have achieved enough on the weaponisation side.

The other issue is how much more information would satisfy critics out there. I mean, ultimately, even if there was a full Iranian confession, I’m sure there would be people out there saying “It’s not enough”, or Iran’s line, or there’s something that we still don’t know. So a confession doesn’t actually above Iran in most people’s eyes. Ultimately the real issue there is protecting against the future, ensuring you can detect a breakout, not whether or not they engaged in this project or that project in the past.

Al Jazeera: There’s now another deadline out there because of Obama’s understanding with Congress. The 8th of July is the last day that Congress gets 30 days to review the deal, or else it goes to a 60-day review period. So has the deadline actually moved? Is it now the 8th of July?

Nephew: I don’t think so. I mean ultimately 60-day review period process is not really that big of a deal in context of a nuclear deal that would run into difficulty in Capitol Hill. In 60 days to review a good deal is not going to be nearly as problematic as 30 days to review a deal that’s got some question marks. So ultimately again I think that the deadline and the pressure of the deadline remains on Iran not on the US and certainly not because of the review process that’s been initiated.

Al Jazeera: Do you think they really are working to the 30th of June or are they now working until the 8th of July?

Nephew: I think they’re working to the 30th of June because the people involved in this would dearly like to go home. I think that if they can achieve by the 30th of June and achieve a good deal, they’ll do it, if by the 8th of July, they’ll do it, if by the 10th of August. They’ll do it. But I don’t think that anyone, certainly not in the US negotiating team, is going to risk a bad deal because of that.

Source: Al Jazeera