The Iranian nuclear deadline: What to expect

The Iranian nuclear deadline: What to expect
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This week marks the nominal deadline for the international community and Iran to flesh out a final agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program and the removal of international sanctions against Iran. In the coming days, significant ink will be spilled as analysts and prognosticators interpret remarks by officials on what may and may not be happening behind closed doors. What can we expect in the coming weeks after the nuclear deadline?

A deal will get done

The decision by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Sunday to return to Tehran for further consultations only underscored what most observers were predicting – that the nominal June 30th nuclear deadline would be breached.

Instead, talks are likely to continue into the weekend and early next week. A more relevant deadline is July 9th, due to U.S. domestic considerations. Per the bill passed by the U.S. Congress this spring mandating a legislative review of any final deal, an agreement submitted after July 9th will double the Congressional review period from 30 to 60 days.

This matters not just because it gives deal opponents more time to mobilize support to block any final deal, but also because President Obama will be unable to suspend any U.S. sanctions authorized by statutory law during that time period. Such a restriction could complicate Washington’s ability to carry out some of the immediate sanctions relief included in an agreement and give a ready-made talking point to Tehran to accuse the U.S. of noncompliance from the beginning.

Nevertheless, despite these temporary obstacles, a deal will be reached for the simple reason that both sides have gone too far now to turn back. In retrospect, the announcement of a framework deal in April was a key turning point. For the first time, both Iran and the international community, led by the United States, put down on paper the fundamental concessions each side were willing to make on behalf of a final deal.

Moreover, the leaders in Tehran and Washington were able to withstand and beat back aggressive efforts by their respective domestic skeptics to overturn this initial set of understandings. Warnings from senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders and religious clerics that the West would not follow through on any final deal have largely been dismissed by the Supreme Leader, who has constantly reaffirmed his trust in the wisdom of Iran’s negotiating team.

In the United States, Congress succeeded in its effort to impose a binding legislative review of a final deal, but at the cost of watered down provisions that largely guarantee President Obama will not be stymied in implementing an agreement if one is reached. Both sides have already suffered political pain for the compromises and concessions made public in the April framework document. It only makes sense now to capitalize on the rewards of successful implementation.

A final agreement will not usher in a new era for U.S.-Iran ties

Both supporters and critics of nuclear diplomacy with Iran view the ongoing negotiations as potentially transformative for Iran’s broader relationship with the outside world, especially the United States. Pundits argue that, once the impediment to Iran’s nuclear activities is successfully removed, it will bring forth progress on other issues that divide Iran from the international community, including its support for proxy terrorist groups in the Middle East. Don’t bet on it.

For Iran, a deal lifts the weight of unprecedented international sanctions off its economy once and for all. Although there is a healthy debate over whether Iran would utilize new found proceeds to funnel back into its domestic economy or to expand its support of proxy groups in the region, the economic payoff of an end to international sanctions is Iran’s primary objective.

Setting the table for better overall relations with the West is not a priority, and indeed, to the extent a nuclear deal frees up Iran to focus greater attention and resources on its subversive actions in the region and beyond, the opposite may occur. Recent speeches by the Iranian Supreme Leader underscore his deep suspicion of and contempt for the United States, and it is difficult to see the Iranian establishment undertaking steps that would open Iran up to further subversive influences.

For the United States, the Obama Administration has always been laser-focused on securing a nuclear deal with Iran. Early on, the Obama administration recognized that enabling Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would be a crushing blow, not least to its Prague Agenda vision of a nuclear free world. Given the late stage of the Obama Presidency, U.S. officials are keenly aware that only the next President could undertake any next steps on U.S.-Iran relations in the wake of a successful nuclear deal.

Iran will not enjoy an economic boom right away

Iranian leaders have purposefully raised expectations among its domestic populace, suggesting that Tehran will only accept a deal that immediately and comprehensively lifts international sanctions against Iran on the first day an agreement is in effect.

However, that is unlikely to be the case. The P-5+1 has been very clear that sanctions will be lifted only as Iran demonstrates compliance with various nuclear-related commitments, including an obligation to address outstanding questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over past nuclear weaponization efforts.

Moreover, even once sanctions are suspended and eventually permanently removed, multinational firms will be cautious in re-entering the Iranian market. They will want some certainty that sanctions have been lifted in the long run and that any deal will not collapse in the initial months due to noncompliance by one side or the other.

At the same time, large European companies are keenly aware of the long arm of the U.S. Treasury Department, and will take great care in ensuring they are on the right side of the law to avoid running afoul of third party sanctions that may remain under U.S. law.

Iran will benefit from a nuclear agreement, make no mistake, but the rewards may be smaller and slower in coming to fruition than expected

About Author

Jofi Joseph

Jofi is an experienced national security professional who has served in senior level positions on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch, with a particular focus on WMD proliferation and homeland security issues. He worked on U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program and participated in P5+1 negotiations with Iran as a White House National Security Council staffer from 2011 to 2013.