Iran Nuclear Agreement? What Agreement?

In November, negotiators for Iran and the U.S., along with other Western powers, announced that they had agreed on a framework for an agreement to slow or even roll back Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, in exchange for an easing of sanctions. The deal was hailed by the usual suspects, like the New York Times editorial board:

The interim nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers is an important step toward resolving the increasingly dangerous dispute over Iran’s progress on production of a nuclear weapon. President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran deserve credit for resisting fierce domestic opposition and a 30-year history of animosity between the two countries to get to this point.

Even though the temporary agreement does not achieve permanent and total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, no one can seriously argue that it doesn’t make the world safer.

This is how President Obama described the initial agreement:

Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure — a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. While today’s announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.

The Washington Post characterized the November agreement as a diplomatic triumph:

The agreement is a long-sought victory for the Obama administration, which from its earliest days made the Iranian nuclear program one of its top foreign policy priorities.

It quickly became apparent, however, that Iran and the Obama administration did not agree on what the agreement–a framework for future negotiations–said. Not only that, it was Iran, not the administration, that publicized the text of the agreement and urged people to read it. As we wrote here, here and elsewhere, Iran’s characterizations of the four-page agreement were correct. It placed little if any practical constraint on Iran’s ability to continue its nuclear enrichment program.

All along, the parties emphasized that November’s four-page agreement was just a framework, and that there wouldn’t be an actual deal unless and until a final, more detailed version could be hammered out. Six months were set aside for that process, which is now beginning. Negotiators for the two sides have assembled in Vienna, and negotiations started today. Suddenly, however, Reuters tells us that prospects for an actual agreement are dim: “Iran and U.S. agree final nuclear deal may be unreachable.”

The United States and long-time arch-foe Iran agree on at least one thing ahead of Tuesday’s negotiations on a long-term nuclear deal – reaching an agreement will be very difficult, if not impossible.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man who has the final say on all matters of state in the Islamic Republic, declared again on Monday that talks between Tehran and six world powers “will not lead anywhere.”

Hours later a senior U.S. administration official also played down expectations, telling reporters in the Austrian capital that it will be a “complicated, difficult and lengthy process” and “probably as likely that we won’t get an agreement as it is that we will.”

Maybe the opposing parties are just posturing, or maybe their pessimism reflects the fact that there never was an agreement to begin with–a hypothesis that is supported by the parties’ dueling interpretations of the interim framework. In any event, last November’s claims by the Obama administration and its cheering section to have taken a major step toward peace in our time were greatly overblown, at best. In the meantime, Iran’s nuclear weapons program continues apace.