Everything You Need to Know About the Iran Nuclear Negotiations

PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands on January 14, 2015 with US State Secretary John Kerry in Geneva. Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands on January 14, 2015 with US State Secretary John Kerry in Geneva.

A Brief History

This deal has been in the works since November 2013. That's when Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany) agreed on a Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement that paved the way for talks by temporarily halting Iran's nuclear enrichment program and subjecting it to daily inspections in exchange for the loosening of some economic sanctions. In November 2014, Secretary Kerry announced an extension of the deadline for an interim agreement until March 31. And on April 2, after eight straight days of high-level diplomatic talks, an interim deal was reached.

What Was The Interim Deal?

A U.S. fact sheet provided at the time said Iran's nuclear breakout time -- the time it would take the country to build a bomb -- would be shifted from 2-3 months to a year. It said Iran’s deep buried nuclear facility will be converted from a nuclear site into a peaceful physics and technology center. No fissile material would remain there. Iran agreed not to enrich uranium over 3.67 percent (20 percent is considered weapons grade) for the next 15 years and to dilute or sell its existing stockpile of enriched uranium, reducing that stockpile by a total of 98 percent. Upon verification of these steps many United Nations and European financial sanctions would be lifted. Other sanctions, including those approved by Congress, will be lifted in a phased approach. A final agreement would have to be reached by June 30.

How Close Are They To A Final Deal?

As Kerry put it last Thursday, "I’m hopeful, but I’m not declaring optimism." Despite televised comments this week where the Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, appeared to pull away from the most basic principles of the interim agreement, State Department officials insist that behind closed doors those matters are resolved. They say at this point it’s a very technical discussion. On Wednesday, Kerry dismissed the Ayatollah’s comments as bluster made for domestic political consumption. He also said plainly that if those were Iran’s actual negotiating terms there would be no deal. At this point completion of a deal hinges on a few very difficult stumbling blocks.

What Are The Stumbling Blocks?

The negotiations are intensely focused right now on the pace and scope of sanctions relief for the Iranians. All that the West wants is to stop Iran’s pathway to a bomb; and all Iran wants is economic relief. What the Iranians care about most is lifting the United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions prevent Iran from doing business with the US, but also from most of the industrialized world. Publicly the Iranians are saying they will not allow inspection of military sites. But for the U.S. that is a non-starter; and officials say indeed the Iranians will concede this point. The negotiating parties are stuck on which sanctions to lift and when, and by what verification process. Also critical in this debate is the issue of snapping back sanctions.

What Is Snap Back?

The U.S. wants to make sure it can snap UN sanctions back into place if something goes wrong. The problem is that they don’t want the U.N. Security Council (of which China and Russia are members) to be able to influence that process. So they are trying to develop a new mechanism, independent of the Security Council, to snap sanctions back into place if needed. At the same time, the Iranians want some measure of snap back too. They want to be able to ramp up nuclear production again if they feel the terms of the agreement are violated, just the same as the US would be able to do. Snap back essentially serves as a mutual deterrent and a mechanism used to make sure each side keeps up its end of the bargain.

Could The Deadline Slide Back?

It’s very possible the deadline could slide back yet again, but likely by only a matter of days. The State Department has held firm in public statements that it is focused on getting a deal done by June 30, but other foreign ministers involved in the talks, as well as U.S. officials who have spoken privately, acknowledge the real possibility that the date could move beyond that.

What Would A Final Deal Look Like?

Similar to the interim deal, officials say nothing is going to be signed on the dotted line. You won’t see that photo op with Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif seated at a table, signing a leather bound document and shaking hands for the cameras. But there will be a document, perhaps as long as a 100 pages, a state department official said, detailing the agreement. “It’s never been about signatures," one official said. "It’s always been about actions and verification.”