With the deadline for an agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program just days away, officials from Iran and six world powers are scrambling to reach a deal in Switzerland. Chances are good, but at least four hurdles remain.
Forty-eight years after Iran's first nuclear reactor, supplied by the US, went online in 1967, Tehran and six international powers appear to be on the verge of striking a comprehensive agreement over the country's controversial nuclear program. In Switzerland, negotiators are trying to finalize a political framework for a deal after years of talks with, and several rounds of sanctions against, Iran.
Mohsen Milani, an Iran expert and executive director of the World Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida has been cautiously optimistic about a deal since a joint plan of action was signed between Iran and the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China in November, 2013.
"I am now equally optimistic about the likelihood of a framework agreement by the March 31 deadline," said Milani, giving it a 60 to 40 percent chance of success.
Good chance for success
Other experts on Iran's nuclear program share the sentiment.
"I would rate this likelihood as favorable by March 31 for a political agreement that sets up a framework, but many technical details will need to be settled beyond March 31," said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
Roland Popp, a Middle East and nuclear expert at the Center for Security Studies at Zurich Technical University (ETH), noted that everyone involved in the talks has "invested a lot in a successful outcome and it seems as if most of the major points have been settled. I would say there is a good chance for reaching an agreement."
While conditions for a basic framework thus appear positive, negotiators must iron out at least four key sticking points to clear the path for a deal.
First, a solution has to be found about the length of Iran's so called breakout time, i.e. how long it would take for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to do so. The US and its European partners want an extended breakout that gives them enough time to respond once Tehran's move would be detected. Iran, however, favors a shorter timeframe to be able to expand its nuclear program for peaceful purposes. A breakout time of one year - mentioned as a possible compromise – has already come under fire by US conservatives as being too short.
For Popp, the discussion about breakout time is overrated, because "even if Iran would ‘go rogue' now and start building nuclear weapons, it would take a decade at least for them to build anything resembling an actual credible deterrent against other nuclear powers."
"Much of the public discourse therefore is very misleading" added Popp. "Given the actual alternative, failure of the talks and subsequent unimpeded continuation of the Iranian nuclear program, possibly without inspections, this should not be a cause for the breakdown of the talks."
Duration of deal and inspections
Two, a compromise must be reached on the nature of the inspection regime of Tehran's nuclear program. "Iran does not want to be treated unfairly," said Ferguson. "But in these extraordinary circumstances, Iran needs to show that it will go beyond the typical safeguards inspections even more than it has already to demonstrate peaceful intent."
Three, differences about the duration of a final agreement need to be resolved. Western powers want the deal to be binding for a least ten years, Tehran seems to favor a shorter timeframe.
Four, the end of the sanctions regime against Tehran is still unclear. "Iran demands immediate lifting of all sanctions, while the US favors a gradual lifting of the sanctions," explained Milani.
Substantial progress in the negotiations notwithstanding, hardliners both in Tehran and in the US Congress remain opposed to any deal that they feel would make too many concessions to the other side. This is important because any interim agreement reached in the current round of talks would only set the political framework. The all-important technical details would have to be negotiated and agreed upon in a second and final round of negotiations until June 30.
Despite the remaining sticking points the experts maintain that a deal that is sensible for all sides involved can be reached and that such an agreement would be preferable over the status-quo, or a collapse of the talks.
"All parties, including skeptics on both sides, have to recognize that compromise is needed and that Iran will still have some latent nuclear weapons capability no matter what the outcome of the deal is," said Ferguson.