Win-win nuclear deal for Rowhani and Obama

Striking an accord in the first phase is very likely and not a strenuous task

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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Iran and the six world powers (known as the P5+1: the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China) are planning to meet next Monday to finalize the outline for the final accord. The prolonged nuclear negotiations between the two sides resumed last week in Geneva in order to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

The Islamic Republic has added Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and former foreign minister under the hardline government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Respectively, the United States has brought Ernest J. Moniz, the U.S. energy secretary, to the nuclear negotiations.

The addition of Moniz and Salehi, and the high-level official meetings, reflect the critical stage of the nuclear talks as well as the efforts of both the American and Iranian government to reach a general outline that would preserve their geopolitical, national, and strategic interests.

Striking an accord in the first phase is very likely and not a strenuous task

Majid Rafizadeh

Although Salehi has been known for his zero-détente or uncompromising approach towards Iran’s nuclear program, his presence is unlikely to thwart an accord in the first phase. Since the distrust between Iran’s hardliners and Hassan Rowhani’s nuclear team have been widened, Salehi’s participation is an effort to ensure that the Iranian technocrat team will emphasize crucial issues such as sanction relief, and that Tehran will not make major concessions which damage Tehran’s national security.

A win-win deal: The first phase

Secretary of the State John Kerry previously proposed a two-phase format for the nuclear negotiations. The first phase aims at reaching a general outline, while the second phase charts a way to agree on the nuances and technical issues.

For several political and technical reasons, reaching an agreement in the first phase of the final nuclear talks is beneficiary for both the Obama and Rowhani administrations.

For the White House, striking a deal by the March deadline would buttress President Obama’s argument that progress is being made with respects to his administration’s efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Domestically speaking, the administration has been heavily criticized by Congress (by both the Republicans and Democrats) for allowing the Islamic Republic to buy time, make unnecessary concessions, and not show signs of progress towards a credible final and comprehensive nuclear deal. Congress has also threatened to pass a sanction bill against the Iranian government in case the nuclear talks make no advances, and in case Iran does not comply with the requirements to limit its nuclear program.

In other words, President Obama will need this general and preliminary nuclear deal by the end of March in order to avoid further domestic pressure and risk scuttling the entire nuclear negotiations.

On the other hand, Iran’s hardliners and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been critical of the proposed two-phased nuclear talks from the outset. President Rowhani has been successful at convincing Ayatollah Khamenei that continuing with the two-phased nuclear talks will ultimately serve the geopolitical, national, economic, and strategic interest of the Islamic Republic.

Similarly, President Rowhani requires to strike a nuclear deal in the first phase in order to maintain the blessing of the Supreme Leader as well keep his leverage against the hardliners, the principalists in the Parliament (Majlis), and senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The likelihood of the first phase deal

In addition to the aforementioned political reasons and vested interest of the Obama and Rowhani administrations to strike a deal in the first phase, other factors contribute to the increasing likelihood of reaching a general accord by end of March.

The first phase agreement will not include the technical details regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The accord will likely include the major talking points, which both sides will discuss in the second phase of the deal. Some of the crucial points are:

• U.S. possible flexibility on the breakout timeline (the amount of time that Tehran will need to build a nuclear bomb from highly enriched uranium or Plutonium)

• Iran’s flexibility for the immediate sanction reliefs

• Iran’s acceptance to provide more data regarding the military Dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear program

• The heavy water Arak Reactor, and the production Plutonium at this site

• Flexibility on both sides to reduce and further discuss the scope and capacity of Tehran’s Uranium Enrichment

• Possibility to allow Iran to maintain additional number of centrifuges

The nuances and the technical details are not part of the first phase of the accord. The following crucial questions will not likely be included in the first phase of the agreement: What exactly will be the minimum “breakout” time? 12 months, two years, etc? What will be the duration of the deal? 10 years, 15 years, 20 years? How many years will it take to remove all economic sanctions against Iran? Will Tehran keep 1,500, 4,500, or 6,500 number of centrifuges? What is the exact scope of nuclear research and development that Tehran can maintain?

Since the aforementioned nuanced questions are not part of the first phase of accord, and since the fundamental gaps between the U.S. and Iran are in the technical details of the final nuclear deal, striking an accord in the first phase is very likely and not a strenuous task.


Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu.

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