by Derek Davison

The new year may have brought with it some signs of progress toward a comprehensive deal between world powers and Iran, lending credence to one of Graham Fuller’s 2015 predictions for the Middle East. However, any movement toward a nuclear agreement must now contend with a potentially game-changing complication: the desire of a new and more hawkish Republican-led Congress to impose additional sanctions on Iran regardless of how the talks are progressing.

The Associated Press reported on Friday that the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China) had reached a tentative agreement with Iranian negotiators on a plan to have Tehran ship some portion of its stockpiled low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia. The agreement would presumably be along the lines of the arrangement that was first reported by IPS’s Gareth Porter in October whereby Iran’s stockpiled LEU, as well as much of its newly enriched LEU, would be converted by the Russians into fuel for its Bushehr civilian nuclear facility.

If the AP report is accurate, the deal could represent a major breakthrough in one of the core areas of dispute between the parties: the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The P5+1 have sought to limit the number of centrifuges that Iran would be allowed to operate under the terms of a deal in order to lengthen the amount of time it would take the Iranians to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a single nuclear bomb if it chose to pursue one (Iran’s “breakout time”). But Iran has balked at the idea of reducing its centrifuge program. However, another element in the “breakout time” calculation (part of the so-called “Rubik’s Cube” of a final nuclear deal) is the amount of LEU that Iran has stockpiled. Were Iran to agree to ship its LEU (which can be fairly easily enriched to levels required for weaponization) to Russia for conversion into fuel rods (which cannot be easily converted to a weaponizable form), then Iran’s “breakout time” could be extended with only a relatively minor –and perhaps even no — reduction in Iran’s current centrifuge capacity.

It should be noted that the AP report contained no specifics, saying simply that “both sides in the talks are still arguing about how much of an enriched uranium stockpile to leave Iran.” It also offered no indication that the deal would motivate the US/P5+1 negotiators to alter their demand that Iran cut its current number of operating centrifuges by over 50%, to 4500, under a final deal. In addition, Iran’s foreign ministry quickly dismissed the AP report, with spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham saying that “no agreement has been reached yet on any of the issues [being discussed] during nuclear talks,” although that denial could reflect diplomatic posturing on Iran’s part.

Other news out of Tehran, however, has offered a more encouraging sign that the sides may be moving closer to a deal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday argued that Iran should be prepared to accept some limits on its uranium enrichment program if doing so could help achieve a larger aim:

Speaking to an economic conference in Tehran, Rouhani both countered hard-line critics worried Iran will give up too much while also attempting to signal his administration remains open to negotiation with the six-nation group leading the talks.

If “we are ready to stop some types of enrichment which we do not need at this time, does it mean we have compromised our principles and cause?” Rouhani asked.

He responded: “Our cause is not linked to a centrifuge. It is connected to our heart and to our willpower.”

Rouhani’s remarks caused a bit of a social media storm, with some reputable analysts, including Suzanne Dimaggio who heads the Iran initiative at the New American Foundation, suggesting that a final deal is on the horizon.

Additionally, Rouhani seemed to suggest that he could put the terms of a final nuclear deal to a national referendum, possibly in order to bypass potential opposition from hardliners in the Majles (Iran’s parliament) and higher up the country’s religious and political hierarchy. As Juan Cole notes, the results of such a referendum could still be overruled by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Khamenei may be reluctant to overrule the will of a majority of the Iranian public.

Unfortunately, these positive developments take place amid the rise of a new threat to the ongoing negotiations, not from hardliners in Iran’s parliament but rather from hardliners in the newly installed (as of Saturday) US Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited Israel late last month and told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that there would be a vote on the previously stymied Kirk-Menendez bill (to impose additional sanctions on Iran) sometime in January, and that the new Congress would “follow [Netanyahu’s] lead” on dealing with Iran and the nuclear talks. Putting aside the astonishing sight of a US senator pledging allegiance to a foreign leader, sanctions are a clearly decisive issue for Tehran. The imposition of another round of broad US sanctions, even if they are made conditional on Iran abandoning the talks or breaking its obligations under the existing negotiating framework, would strengthen hardliners in Tehran who have long argued that Washington cannot be trusted. The Obama administration has pledged to veto any additional sanctions on Iran so long as talks are ongoing, but that may not matter; Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) told reporters last week that he expects the new Congress to pass a new sanctions bill with veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate.

The most recent extension of the talks called for a final framework to be in place by March 1 and for a full deal to be reached by July 1. It seems likely that most Republicans in Congress will do their best to scuttle the talks before either of those deadlines can be reached, putting negotiators (who will meet again Jan 15. in Geneva) on an even tighter timeframe.

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