At this hour the State Department is reporting that the P5+1 negotiators may agree to extend tonight's deadline in Lausanne because Iran is refusing to make the hard decisions to reach an agreement and more time is needed to see if Iran turns a page. If and when a 'framework agreement" is concluded, here is my latest "Field Guide" to assess whatever may emerge tonight, tomorrow or whenever.
1. Is this an "Agreement?" Well, yes and no. When the foreign ministers of the P5+1 countries and their Iranian counterpart emerge from the marathon bargaining session DO NOT rush to judgment. It is going to take days for the experts to decipher their handiwork. Nevertheless, start with the premise that from now until the end of June (the drop dead deadline for a full-fledged agreement) the meat of the agreement will have to be put on the bones of the "framework." Less meat means less substantive agreement on key issues and too many generalizations substituting for knotty, critical disagreements.
2. Why a "Framework Agreement" and not a final "Agreement? Secretary of State John Kerry will go to great lengths to assert this is not/not a final agreement and was never intended to be such, but merely a "framework agreement." The March 31 deadline is an "action forcing" deadline. However, there is no penalty if tonight's deadline is missed. Do not confuse the two. The March 31 deadline to conclude this "framework" is actually artificial and is not etched in stone. A "framework agreement" is intended to set the table for subsequent negotiations to fill in all of the missing blank details by a legally-binding June 30 deadline. If the negotiators decide tonight is not too late to reach a framework agreement they could go on talking - yes, even passed tax filing day to reach a "Framework Agreement." But the longer they talk, the more dubious the product because there may be too many generalizations, disagreements, and not enough specifics.
3. How Many Cans Are Kicked Down the Road? There are essential elements that must be included in the "Framework Agreement" to justify any champagne in Lausanne. Under the 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), Iran CAN only be left with a "civilian" nuclear infrastructure. What does that actually mean? When you review or hear about a framework agreement, check to see whether it factually and explicitly addresses the following key issues. Does it....
• Absolutely prevent Iran from enriching any uranium or plutonium in excess of 5%.
• How much "R&D" (nuclear research and development) will be permitted that will only defer the day that Iran becomes a nuclear weapons power and not prevent it from ever becoming a nuclear power. This is highly technical, but the more "R&D" permitted, the harder the sell. Caveat Emptor: It will be exceedingly difficult for any non nuclear scientist to decipher how much R&D is permitted no matter what is written.
• Reduce Iran's centrifuge fabrication capacity (from how many to how many) AND substantially eliminate NOT only the number BUT also the operational research into AND the capacity of the more technologically advanced uranium and plutonium enrichment producing centrifuges in Iran's hands.
• Require Iran to export or irreversibly dilute any of its enriched uranium in excess of 5%. Twenty-four hours ago, the NY Times reported Iran was reneging on a preliminary agreement to export its medium enriched uranium to Russia. So what is iran's verifiable alternative?
• Compel Iran to mothball many of its notorious nuclear installations including those at Arak, Parchin, Fodor, and others that were secret emporiums for Iran's nuclear programs and nascent nuclear bomb factories.
• Require Iran to provide to the IAEA the requested and required information - as well as unimpeded access -- to assuage the IAEA that Iran has had and will not have any military dimensions to its nuclear program. In particular, the IAEA wants access to the Parchin nuclear facility NOW. If Iran does not have a nuclear bomb in mind, why is it preventing the IAEA from having unimpeded access and information needed to verify its "assurances?"
• Provide for IMMEDIATE penalties (re-imposition of economic sanctions) for even the slightest infraction (see below).
• Lift too many sanctions up front or are the sanctions "phased out" based on verifiable compliance. Khamenei is insisting (and is at this hour one of the key sticking points), most sanctions be lifted at the outset. The more sanctions are lifted now, the more likely Iran will feel free to breach the a final agreement later on.
If ANY of these key issues are not "satisfactorily" addressed in a framework agreement the Iranians obviously balked at essential demands and that means the P5+1 are papering over key issues that should not have been papered over. The Supreme Leader -- Ali Khamenei is the proverbial ghost hovering over the negotiations. If a framework agreement has gaping holes insofar as verification and exporting Iran's nuclear stockpile to Russia it is ONLY because Khamenei said nyet. Congress will have nothing of Khamenei's rejections that would avoid fulfilling Iran's prior agreements under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 2013 Joint Plan of Action - the outline foundation for any framework agreement under \negotiation now by the P5+1
4. 24/7 Snap Inspections of Iran's Nuclear Infrastructure: If the "Framework Agreement" does not provide for ABSOLUTE, no questions asked, no permission required 24/7 right of IAEA inspectors to inspect Iran's nuclear infrastructure, it is a bad, no, it is a VERY bad deal. Without constant, unimpeded right of IAEA inspectors to verify Iran's compliance, check out how successful a similar agreement worked with North Korea lately.
5. "Broken Windows" Enforcement To prove that Iran will not escape any of its binding obligations under an agreement, any framework agreement must spell out in clear, plain English what price Iran will pay for violating any of its binding international obligations under both an agreement and its duties under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Additional Protocols - to which it is a signatory. One "no" to an inspection cannot be excused, waived, or ignored without an AUTOMATIC, severe penalty (sanctions; even limited military attack) that does not require endless rounds of hand wringing by the P5+1. If any violation not immediately "cured" occurs look to see whether Iran can drag out any penalty imposition and tie up the P5+1 in knots.
6. Parle-vous Francaise? When the Joint Plan of Action was being negotiated by John Kerry in 2013, the French served as "Pepe le Peu" (proverbial skunk at the Kerry picnic) and prevented Kerry from rushing into an odious JPOA with Tehran. Once again, the French are the "canary in the coal mine." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius publicly and privately warned the U.S. not to rush into a framework agreement without quantifiable and verifiable concessions. Will the French be united with their P5+1 allies, or will the French publicly express reservations? Vive la France!
7. Congressional Reaction. Don't get snowballed by endless adverse Congressional reaction - most of which will be instantaneously negative to any emerging framework agreement. There are several key members, however, whose opinions will matter whether the Obama Administration can keep the lid on further Iran economic sanctions and enable it to sell a framework agreement, but who will not walk the plank to sell a bad deal. Check to see the reactions of Senators Schumer, Reed, Feinstein, Mikulski, Klobuchar, Markey, Wyden. In the House, Representatives, follow the reactions of Congressmen Pelosi, Hoyer, Sherman, Van Hollen, Engel, and Lowey. What they have to say will not determine the framework agreement's ultimate fate, or even the likelihood of additional sanctions, but their comments will signal whether Kerry will be accorded an open ear by Democratic allies.
8. UN IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. Amano has been a hero in this Iran nuclear fiasco. He has played the essential role as an objective critic of Iran's nuclear program non-compliance. His IAEA staff have repeatedly warned the P5+1 that Iran is denying IAEA inspectors access to key nuclear installations - particularly sites the IAEA fears are hiding Iran's illegal nuclear weapons programs. Armano is not afraid to call a spade a spade. If a framework agreement fails to compel Iran to abide by the NPT's Additional Protocols, which Iran signed in 2003 (they require Iran to provide unfettered access to any place in Iran that the IAEA inspectors believe could be harboring nuclear weaponization installations) can Kerry or Obama legitimately argue that Iran is prepared to meet its international obligations. What Armano has to say and what his agency issues in the way of a reaction, will be KEY to determining whether we are being sold a bad bill of goods.
9. How Much Time is Iran Straight-jacketed? A sturdy framework agreement is designed to lock Iran's nuclear program in a ten year box with a prying camera relentlessly spying on it. It is also intended to prevent Iran from achieving any "breakout" to produce a nuclear bomb within 12 months of a final, end of June agreement. Let us not get too much lost in the weeds here. These timetables say much about how little the west can really do to reign in Iran's nuclear ambitions. Remember, with or without an agreement, Iran will be left with a viable nuclear infrastructure that will ultimately enable it to build a bomb - perhaps not now, perhaps not in ten years, but certainly thereafter. What then?
10. A Vegas Bet; What Happens if An Iran "Breakout" is Detected? The ultimate problem with any emerging framework or final agreement is that, at best, neither form of agreement will detail the consequences of an Iranian 'breakout" i.e., what binding legal commitments do the P5+1 take upon themselves to resort to the use of force in the event Iran engages in a 'breakout" attempt. Either or both agreements will deploy vague euphemisms such as "all options are on the table" (code word for use of military force) or that the P5+1 will agree that they will act in accordance with Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in the event a "breakout" is detected. Of course, Russia and China wield vetoes in the UNSC no matter what is agreed to in Switzerland now or later. This is where the rubber hits the road, and you can be certain that no one knows today what contingencies will be enforceable if circumstances warrant. After all, there will be a new administration, the Supreme Leader, who is suffering from prostate cancer, may be dead, and, well, then there is North Korea as Exhibit A what happens when so-called binding agreements are wantonly violated, and written warnings become empty threats.