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US, Iran at odds over sanctions relief: Was making it public a mistake?

Two months before a deadline for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program, the 'fact sheet' made public in Lausanne has left US and Iranian negotiators politically exposed.

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    US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) listens to Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before resuming talks over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 16, 2015.
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It didn’t take long for the initial elation over the Iran nuclear framework deal announced April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland – greeted by dancing in the streets of Tehran and hailed by President Barack Obama as “historic” – to be replaced by criticism from hard-liners on both sides.

And it took only a little while longer for seemingly irreconcilable differences to emerge – especially on the issue of sanctions relief. In public statements, Mr. Obama said the sanctions would be phased out after Iran’s steps were verified, while Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said they would be lifted immediately with the signing of the agreement. 

Two months before the final deadline for Iran and the so-called P5+1 powers to conclude a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful uses, the detailed “parameters” made public in Lausanne have revealed sensitive negotiating positions and compromises, and left US and Iranian negotiators politically exposed.

A central question now is how they allowed themselves to become so vulnerable – especially given the time invested in recent years and the critical nature of the talks. The answer, say analysts, may lie in negotiators' foot-dragging and brinkmanship, combined with the political needs in Washington. But, they add, rhetorical disputes will not likely prevent a deal.

Both sides now hint that their decision to produce a “political framework” with three months to go was a mistake that has raised the political stakes of the talks, says Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London.

“It was completely avoidable.… As soon as they set the end of March as a date, they cornered themselves into at least releasing something if the process was going to continue,” says Ms. Esfandiary, who has closely monitored the talks in Switzerland and Austria.

Talks resumed in New York this week between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Drafting the final accord began Thursday and will move next week to Europe.

Fueling the political fervor of the deal’s opponents – especially among congressional Iran hawks, who are now debating a bill that could scupper the final deal, but also in Israel and Iran – is the four-page US framework fact sheet that Washington says both sides accept but that Iran didn’t want released at all.

The document, which represents serious progress toward an accord, was designed to show (especially to a skeptical Congress) that talks should continue in the face of two deadline extensions. But it has also created a political firestorm.

When would sanctions be lifted?

“Iran has tried to describe the agreement that emerged in Lausanne as a win-win, a balanced affair, and [Zarif] has taken issue with the fact sheet because it emphasizes the steps that Iran will take, but doesn’t explain the steps that the P5+1 will take,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

"From his perspective, that was unnecessary and it has created difficulty ... back home, because what the Iranian hardliners are reading are American press stories about what the Iranians gave up, not so much what the Iranians will be getting,” says Mr. Kimball.

Among the most contentious issues: the timing and scale of sanctions relief.

The American document states that US and EU sanctions meant to force Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program will be suspended only after “Iran has taken all” key nuclear steps, which Mr. Kerry has said could take from four months to a year, and could quickly “snap back” if Iran violated the deal.

But Ayatollah Khamenei said the US fact sheet was “wrong about many things” and a further example of the “obstinate and deceitful [and] backstabbing” nature of the other side.

Yet while Khamenei said sanctions had to be “completely lifted” on the day of the signing of the final accord, he also gave strong support to Iran’s negotiating team, saying they had his full trust and “may deem it necessary to accept a few limitations.”

Mr. Zarif appeared to exercise that flexibility Wednesday, when he acknowledged that sanctions relief would be linked reciprocally to steps taken by Iran. “These are steps that should only take a few weeks. [Then] sanctions are off,” he told an audience at New York University. “The time that they will … take effect are the time that our steps have taken effect."

With such discord as a result, why produce the fact sheet?

Natural result of brinkmanship

Less troublesome would have been negotiating while bypassing any controversial early public disclosure, as in all previous rounds – and instead presenting an accord as a fait accompli on June 30.

One answer lies in the negotiators’ tactics, Esfandiary says. The habit of scrambling for last-minute advantage during deadline rounds yielded two half-year extensions to the talks. This in turn produced pressure to deliver the April 2 report to show publicly that progress was being made.

According to Esfandiary, an agreement could have been reached earlier, but the delays were a natural result of the brinkmanship and cold calculations that pushing the limit would yield results. Reaching an accord earlier during either extension would have only been taken by critics to mean that negotiators had not bargained hard enough. “So I don’t think there was a lot of scope for them to do it differently,” she says.

Another reason for the fact sheet was that “Congress was demanding results,” says Kimball.

“The reality is that the two sides are in agreement about what to do and when to do it, but there is a difference of opinion over the semantics that were used in the fact sheet,” he adds. “I find it difficult to blame the administration for delivering not just an agreement, but also delivering a useful explanation…. There are critics on the Hill who will not be satisfied with anything. They will use any opportunity they can to blow up the deal.”

Aware of the political risks that awaited the announcement of the framework agreement, Kerry and Zarif met in Lausanne to specifically address the public presentation of the “parameters” just hours before they separately took to the stage to make the announcements. According to a senior US official, they agreed that two different narratives would emerge to appease their own domestic audiences.

Some facts are more favorable to one side than others, said the US official, and both sides agreed to emphasize different aspects of the deal.

An easier sell in Tehran?

Yet the price has been high, as critics in Washington and Tehran both accuse their own negotiating teams of caving in, and ignoring stated red lines in their rush to get a deal.

“Our narration of the agreement is not similar to the West’s narration [and] is completely different from the Americans',” Iranian negotiator Hamid Baeidinejad told Iranian journalists earlier this month.

“These two narrations speak of the same thing but with different jargon,” said Mr. Baeidinejad, noting that “media might become confused” by the discrepancy.

Zarif returned to a hero’s welcome in Tehran, but congressional attacks on Obama and Kerry have been withering. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu maintains that instead of blocking all pathways for Iran to ever build a nuclear weapon, the deal does the opposite.

Iranian critics have been just as loud, though Khamenei has firmer control over hardliners who ultimately are devoted to his rule.

“The Iranian team is in a better position to ignore domestic criticism because Khamenei for now is on their side,” says Esfandiary. “I think, ironically, it’s the other side that is going to struggle more, particularly the Americans."

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