Over the past few weeks, Iran has increasingly resisted any kind of formal “framework” agreement at this stage in the negotiations, preferring a more general statement of “understanding” followed by a final accord in June, according to Western diplomats involved in the talks.
Should that position hold — one of the many unknowns of the coming days — the United States and its five negotiating partners may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of describing the accord as they understand it while the Iranians go home to offer their own version.
That poses a weighty political challenge to the Obama administration, which is already under pressure to present Iran’s commitments to a suspicious Congress by early April, in an effort to hold off the passage of sanctions or a bill that would require Congress to sign off on any agreement.
Just last week, as the previous round of talks with Iran came to a close, a senior American official involved in the negotiations said that the framework accord with Iran would have to be more than a political declaration of intentions. Rather, it would have to contain a “quantifiable dimension.”
There is a lot to quantify, from the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges that would remain spinning to exactly how Iran would change the design of a reactor that is under construction to limit the production of plutonium, another pathway to a bomb. But Iran says it will not agree to such specifics, at least for now.
“This is one of the biggest challenges we face,” one European diplomat involved in the talks said in recent days. “The politics in America demand specificity, and an Iranian commitment. And the politics in Iran demand vagueness” and no commitment until a possible final deal — with all its technical annexes — is reached in June.
The European official added, “All of us are in agreement that you don’t make oral deals with Iran.”
Secretary of State John Kerry met with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, administration officials said, in part to give the president the latest details before departing for Lausanne, Switzerland, on Wednesday to continue talks.
At the core of the problem is this political reality: Republicans in Congress, along with a significant number of Democrats, took the March deadline for a political agreement announced by Mr. Kerry on Nov. 24 as a critical milestone for any accord. If the Iranians could not provide specifics by then, many in Congress told the White House, then it was a sign that Iran was deliberately dragging out the process and needed to be further pressured by new sanctions.
But Iran’s politics are running in the opposite direction. The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared that he wants only one agreement, presumably the one in late June.
Iran’s top negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has made it clear to his Western counterparts that keeping hard-liners in the country in check — including generals in the Revolutionary Guard Corps and powerful mullahs who dislike the idea of being limited by any accord — is a delicate art. His fear is that a deal that details Iranian compromises could give them an opening to scuttle a final deal.
“We forget that the Iranians have politics, too,” one German official who has dealt with the issue at length said recently. “And theirs are at least as complicated as Obama’s.”
Asked about the problem, an American official conceded that it was still unclear whether Iran would sign anything by next Tuesday. The official said that the United States and its allies would be “making clear with as much specificity as possible what’s been agreed to.” But the official said that “beyond that, we really have no idea,” and that much would be left to the technical annexes.
A senior administration official who was in Lausanne for the talks last week told reporters there that the United States still hoped to agree on specific limits by the end of March that define the parameters of a more detailed, comprehensive agreement that is scheduled to be completed by the end of June.
That is essentially what Mr. Kerry had envisioned last November — a two-step process that would demonstrate concrete progress to Congress and keep the process with the Iranians moving. At the time, the Iranian negotiators seemed on board.
But in early February, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has taken his own negotiators by surprise several times, said there would be only one agreement. That left the United States and its allies — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — in an uncomfortable place. What was the March deadline all about if it was no longer a deadline in the Ayatollah’s eyes?
The American answer has been to plunge ahead. “I think if there is an agreement, I don’t see how it could be meaningful without having some quantitative dimensions,” said the official, who could not be identified under the protocol for briefing reporters. “Otherwise, it’s not an executable program.”
But to a degree that is unusual in such major international agreements, the dividing line in these talks between “political” and “technical” is often blurry. The core test, established by Mr. Kerry, is whether any agreement would give the West, Israel and Iran’s wary Arab neighbors at least one year’s warning time if Iran decided to race for a bomb — known as a “breakout.”
That requires a complex calculation, dictated by the number of centrifuges that are spinning, the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and, in the later years of the accord, the type and number of advanced centrifuges Iran is allowed to develop.
As one senior official said, “Even the French, British and Americans come up with different calculations.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel made it clear in his speech to Congress this month that Israeli scientists were going to come to their own calculations — and their back-of-the-envelope assessment on a deal they have not yet seen already differs from that of the United States.
“Because Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact,” Mr. Netanyahu said, “Iran’s breakout time would be very short — about a year by U.S. assessment, even shorter by Israel’s.”
The French share Mr. Netanyahu’s concerns, though not his heated language. They worry that if Iran is allowed to conduct research and development on those far more advanced centrifuges, the breakout time will drop below a year in the latter days of the agreement.
American officials say that is still among the questions to be resolved. It is just not clear when or whether the American and Iranian accounting of events might match up.