Who Killed the Iran Deal?

by Patrick Brennan

This weekend, the possible nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (plus Germany) fell apart — but it wasn’t clear at first why. Diplomatic sources said on Saturday that the agreement was collapsing, and attributed it to France’s demanding tighter conditions from Iran. This made sense in light of the French foreign minister’s comments to a radio station Saturday, calling the plan as a “sucker’s deal,” and referring to “several points that . . . we’re not satisfied with compared with the initial text” (one of those issues appears to be Iran’s plutonium plant at Arak — which is of seriously dubious civilian value, and wasn’t going to be affected by the original deal; another was Iran’s stock of 20 percent–enriched uranium, which the West would like to see reprocessed so it’s not readily available for weapons use). Various Iranian factions did blame France, but not all — the Iranian foreign minister told the BBC, ”I’m not going to tell you who is creating trouble.”

But now it appears it may have been Iran who was “creating trouble”: Other anonymous sources have now said that the breaking point wasn’t France’s interest in tighter concessions (though that may have been true, too) but Iran’s insistence on a right to nuclear enrichment. “There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it; at that particular moment they weren’t able to accept that particular deal,” Kerry told reporters this morning in Abu Dhabi. Kerry’s characterization of the problem could hint at internal issues in Iran holding up the deal — i.e., the Iranian diplomats were happy with the agreement, but they couldn’t find the support or authorization from the regime at home — but if a right to enrichment was the sticking point, this seems less likely. Even at his most concilatory and optimistic moments, Iran’s ostensibly moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, has defended the idea that the Iranian people have a right to enrich uranium, a point he repeated yesterday.

The Wall Street Journal quotes “diplomats involved in the process” saying public criticism of the deal from Israeli and French officials interfered with negotiations — but the story also notes that “what many diplomats saw as shortcomings in the accord being considered” also helped sink the deal. In other words, there were fundamental problems with the proposal — which the French and Israelis helped shed light on, but which no party was happy to see go unresolved (assuming that the U.S., no matter how eager the Obama administration is for a deal, would never agree to a deal recognizing a right to enrichment).

Kerry claims he was proud of the work that negotiators accomplished in Geneva this week, but it looks like the parties came to the table remarkably far apart, without any realistic framework for a deal. The Security Council has passed multiple resolutions demanding that Iran halt its enrichment activities, while Iran’s players seem united in demanding that the deal include a provision explicitly recognizing the country’s right to do so. Senior officials from the negeotiators are supposed to resume talks in about ten days, and International Atomic Energy Agency says there is now a “framework” for a deal with Iran that negotiators will try to iron out over the next three months, but this isn’t what the Obama administration was hoping for. The White House wanted an agreement on a six-month freeze in enrichment activities, which would then provide time to agree on a broader deal. Now, instead, Iran’s activities will continue unmolested, even if the IAEA’s framework proves useful over the coming months.