Learn About the Negotiations that Led to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The highly contested negotiation talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) over the former’s nuclear program resulted in a tentative framework for an eventual agreement. These discussions have been on the center stage of the global community whose concerns over regional security have elicited a multitude of responses from state leaders.

So, how did these talks even happen? What circumstances brought a recalcitrant Iran to the table to consider conceding to external pressures? Iran’s interference in the domestic affairs of its neighbors has drawn the ire of Israel, Sunni-led states, the United States, and others, while ongoing defiance and posturing has increasingly isolated the Islamic Republic, already heavily impacted by years of strict sanctions.

On April 7, 2015, then-C.I.A. Director John O. Brennan, spoke at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he outlined how the negotiation process evolved over time. The New York Times covered this conversation; for the complete article with multimedia materials, visit their website.  This illustrative piece would be a good launching point for discussion about diplomacy, international agreements, the global economy, and sovereignty.

C.I.A. Director Says Iran’s Economic Peril Helped Drive Nuclear Deal

David E. Sanger, April 8, 2015

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The director of the Central Intelligence Agency has provided the first public glimpse of American intelligence assessments about why Iran’s leadership agreed to the tentative nuclear accord last week, saying that Iran’s president persuaded its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that their country’s economy was “destined to go down” unless he reached an understanding with the West.

The C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, speaking Tuesday night at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, suggested that a key to the deal was the election of President Hassan Rouhani, who had hardly been the supreme leader’s first choice.

John Brennan, director of the C.I.A., speaking about nuclear talks on Tuesday night at Harvard. CreditGretchen Ertl/Reuters

It took more than two years, he suggested, for the new president, a former nuclear negotiator himself, to persuade the far more isolated Ayatollah Khamenei that “six years of sanctions had really hit,” and that the economic future imperiled the country’s leadership.

During this time, the ayatollah kept referring publicly to Iran’s “resistance economy,” a phrase that resounded among hard-liners who liked to portray the country as thriving by confronting the United States and its allies.

Mr. Brennan also suggested that Ayatollah Khamenei, who has not spoken publicly about the accord but has also not permitted hard-liners to speak out against it, had performed a careful political calculation. If the effort to reach an accord collapsed, or the price seemed too high, prominent members of Mr. Rouhani’s government could be blamed, starting with the lead negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“I think Khamenei was in the position of being able to say to Rouhani and Zarif, ‘O.K., see if you can get a deal,’ ” said Mr. Brennan, speaking to hundreds of students in an hourlong interview conducted by Graham T. Allison, a Harvard professor and former dean of the school who specializes in nuclear strategy. “Because if you do, Khamenei is going to be able to derive the benefits from it, and if you don’t get one, Rouhani has Zarif to blame.”

Mr. Brennan, who like other intelligence officials work to protect their “sources and methods,” did not say how the agency knew such details about the supreme leader — through human spies, electronic intercepts or an analysis of other intelligence.

Even so, Mr. Brennan’s views are considered important because President Obama had said in recent days that he had sought an assessment of Ayatollah Khamenei’s intentions from the intelligence community, telling Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, on Saturday that “he’s a pretty tough read — I don’t have great insight beyond what I think I get from our intelligence folks.”

Click graphic to link to: A Simple Guide to the Nuclear Negotiations with Iran

While Mr. Obama is usually deeply suspicious of intelligence reporting, his relationship with Mr. Brennan has been an especially tight one since the 2008 campaign. In Mr. Obama’s first term, Mr. Brennan was his top intelligence adviser.

The process of getting Iran to negotiate took time, Mr. Brennan said, playing out long after two secret envoys from the Obama administration — a former deputy secretary of state, William J. Burns, and a former close adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jake Sullivan — made the first efforts to draw the Rouhani government into a conversation.

“I think over time Rouhani was able to explain to Khamenei just how challenging the economic environment was in Iran right now, and it was destined to go down,” he said. “The only way they were going to address” the problem was to get sanctions lifted.

Mr. Brennan’s account contrasted sharply with assessments made by American intelligence officials in 2009, when a much smaller deal with Iran on nuclear production fell apart after negotiations in Geneva and Vienna. At that time, Obama administration officials said the decision to abandon the deal had come from Ayatollah Khamenei himself. They did not say how they knew of his role, but it appeared that they had some capability to monitor his communications, or those of his aides.

At the time, the sanctions on oil and financial transactions had not yet been imposed, and a cybersabotage program against Iran, code-named “Olympic Games,” was still developing.

When pressed about the sabotage, Mr. Brennan indirectly acknowledged it had played a role in getting Iran to negotiate, suggesting the Iranians had been frustrated that they could not get their centrifuges and other equipment operating more quickly and more efficiently. But he was careful not to acknowledge the activity, and the United States has never talked publicly about its extensive sabotage program, which started under President George W. Bush and was accelerated by Mr. Obama. In private, many intelligence officials say that effort was at least as important as the sanctions.

Mr. Brennan’s description of Mr. Rouhani as a man who “has a history of engaging with the West, and he is much more practical and reasonable individual,” is bound to inflame the Israeli government. In October 2013, speaking at the United Nations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Mr. Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

In the same speech he described the Iranian president as a man who “thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it, too,” referring to the raw uranium ore that can be processed into nuclear fuel.

Click graphic to link to: The Iran Nuclear Deal’s Definition Depends on Who’s Talking

But Mr. Brennan suggested that the provisions of the accord that allow international inspectors to trace Iran’s efforts back to its uranium mills and mines, and track the fuel as it is sent off for processing — including into yellowcake — was important to improving intelligence collection about Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Mr. Brennan also dismissed as “wholly disingenuous” Mr. Netanyahu’s claim that the framework accord reached last Thursday in Lausanne, Switzerland, would provide Iran with a “pathway to a bomb.”

Without naming Mr. Netanyahu directly, but quoting from his language, Mr. Brennan said that he was “pleasantly surprised” that the Iranians had given up as much as they did. He also backed the Obama administration’s assessment that the accord would greatly extend the amount of time it would take Iran to put together a bomb, either from plutonium or uranium.

“When I look at the concessions that they made, going from 19,000 centrifuges to 6,000 centrifuges with 5,000 still operating, nobody thought they would do it,” Mr. Brennan said.

The C.I.A.’s ability to detect covert nuclear sites has been mixed at best. More than a decade ago it detected, with the help of allies, the large enrichment plant at Natanz. Under the preliminary nuclear agreement, it would be the only site where Iran would be able to enrich uranium, in limited quantities. The agency missed a large underground site called Fordo, which was first detected by Britain and Israel, and it also missed a nearby nuclear reactor in Syria, built by North Korea and bombed by Israel in September 2007.

Mr. Brennan expressed confidence that the C.I.A. would be able to build on the international inspections and detect new covert activity, saying “we’ve gone to school” on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Mr. Brennan hinted he had little expectation that the agreement would change Iran’s behavior in the region, including its sponsorship of terrorism. And he acknowledged that the increased revenue Iran would receive as sanctions are lifted could bolster those efforts.

“I don’t think this is going to lead to a light switch and the Iranians are going to become passive, docile,” he said.

Sanger, D. (2015, April 8). The New York Times.

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