Photo: AFP
Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei
Photo: AFP
Alex Fishman

Iran nuclear deal will be decided by Khamenei

Analysis: While Netanyahu stands on Congress podium, American and Iranian diplomats will be working on final details of fatal agreement which may remove sanctions imposed on Tehran. But will the Iranian supreme leader even approve the deal?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will stand on the Congress podium as the Iranians and Americans are about to finish up the last kilometer of the marathon towards the agreement. And like in every marathon, the last kilometer is the hardest.



The two sides are now approaching the point of all or nothing. Formulas have already been found for most of the major disputes, which will allow the parties to sign an agreement of principles aimed at freezing Iran's nuclear activity.


The big obstacle which remains in the last kilometer has to do with the way the international sanctions against Iran will be lifted, and the way the restrictions and tight supervision on the Iranian nuclear industry will be removed, and the timetable for doing so.


This is allegedly another technical-professional chapter, but it's actually a political obstacle lying on the doorstep of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and US President Barack Obama.


The Iranians are not only fighting for the removal of the economic sanctions – it's already clear that they will get that one way or another. They are demanding that the American administration sign an agreement which basically breaks the sanction mechanism. Their goal is that in the future it will be impossible to create an affiliation between their nuclear activity and the sanction regime. This is a demand that the Washington administration will be unable to pass in the Congress, and which the rest of the world powers will likely not agree to.


Nuclear facility in Natanz. The only place where Iran will be permitted to continue enriching uranium (Photo: AFP)
Nuclear facility in Natanz. The only place where Iran will be permitted to continue enriching uranium (Photo: AFP)


So far, Obama has managed to shake Israel and Saudi Arabia off his shoulders. They are not a factor in his decision. But if he signs an agreement which is not accepted by all the world powers and a considerable part of the American public and its representatives in the Congress, Israel and Saudi Arabia will dance on his head.


US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who heads the American delegation to the talks with Iran, held a press briefing on Friday. The goal was to undermine the basis of Netanyahu's upcoming Congress speech. Sherman repeated the familiar arguments: There is no agreement yet, there are still disputes, and the agreement will anyway meet the red lines set by the administration and will include tightened supervision and restrictions on uranium and plutonium enrichment.


During the briefing, Sherman revealed the core of the agreement of principles which is expected to be signed with the Iranians on March 24. She said the agreement would limit the Iranian enrichment capability and create a gap of at least a year until they succeed in getting enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb (it takes two years to produce an operational bomb). During this period, the US – thanks to the tight supervision – will be able to find out whether the Iranians have violated the agreement and do something about it.


Iranians taking advantage of Obama's eagerness

Sherman reiterated the things US Secretary of State John Kerry said: It's better to reach a diplomatic agreement which isn't perfect but keeps Iran away from a bomb, while maintaining tight supervision, than a situation in which the Iranians have enough enriched uranium to reach a bomb much faster.


The talks have not ended yet, but the Iranians and the Americans have already agreed on a series of matters in principle, including reducing the number of active centrifuges. There is still no final formula on the number and quality of the centrifuges which will remain in the Iranians' hands, and the issue is expected to be solved by experts before the agreement is signed in June.


The Iranians have also agreed that the heavy water reactor in Arak will be converted in a way which will make it possible to produce plutonium at the site. In addition, the number of facilities performing uranium enrichment will be reduced: The Iranians will not dismantle the secret facility in Fordo, but will not perform any enrichment there either. Natanz is the only place where they will be permitted to continue doing so.


Netanyahu leaves for Washington. Speech will weaken the Congress' stance against the president over Iran sanctions (Photo: Amos Ben Gerhom, GPO) (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO)
Netanyahu leaves for Washington. Speech will weaken the Congress' stance against the president over Iran sanctions (Photo: Amos Ben Gerhom, GPO)


The understandings on low-level uranium enrichment, which were reached in the interim agreement, remain unchanged in the final agreement taking shape. The ayatollahs' representatives have also accepted the world powers' request to share information about their nuclear military program with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and have reached an understanding on tight and unprecedented future supervision. This sensitive matter still includes controversial issues which could terminate the agreement.


At first sight, it seems the Iranians have gone a good part of the way towards the demands made by the US and world powers. And indeed, Obama is extremely tempted to sign the agreement which is taking shape. When that happens, the president will be able to present an achievement which will serve the American interest in the Middle East with a new partner in the battle against radical Islam.


The problem is that the Iranians are fully taking advantage of Obama's eagerness to sign an agreement: They are willing to accept restricted sanctions and supervision, but are demanding in return a commitment from the US and world powers to let them back into the family of nations as soon as possible.


The Iranians won't wait. They are demanding that the White House force the United Nations Security Council and the Congress to lift the sanction threat once and for all, and want to see a detailed timetable for that. And so the real damage caused by Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday will in fact be that it will weaken the Congress' stance against the president and his possible veto power if new sanctions are put on the agenda.


The insult that Obama and the Democrats suffered from Netanyahu will make it difficult to enact future legislation seeking to step up the sanctions or prevent the president from lifting the existing sanctions himself.


The remaining mystery

What will happen with the supervision and sanction regime vis-à-vis Iran in the coming years? From the agreement taking shape, it's unclear. The only thing the Americans can say right now is that the supervision regime will last from 10 to 15 years. They are not detailing the timetable for the removal of the supervision and sanctions. That is also the bone of contention between the parties, which has to be resolved within three weeks – otherwise, there will be no agreement.


If the Iranians get what they want in the last straight of the negotiations, it will lead to a cancellation of the sanction mechanism in the Security Council and Congress within a short period of time. The Iranian believe that without this mechanism, the lifted sanctions won't be restored. They have realized that the US will no longer be able to garner international consensus for Iran's renewed isolation.


One "small" mystery remains ahead of the agreement, which not a single intelligence source has managed to solve yet: Will supreme leader Ali Khamenei even approve it? The keys are in his hands, and he has never promised to accept the recommendations of President Hassan Rouhani's people, who are running the negotiations.


During the nuclear talks in the past few months, his advisors in Vienna suggested signing the agreement, but Rouhani rejected the recommendations, mainly for internal Iranian reasons. Once we receive indications that Khamenei has approved the agreement, that's when we’ll know that it's a done deal.


פרסום ראשון: 03.01.15, 15:42
 new comment
This will delete your current comment