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Issue Guide: Iran Nuclear Talks

Author: Zachary Laub, Senior Copy Editor/Writer
Updated July 9, 2015


Negotiators from Iran and international powers are nearing a deadline for a deal that would impose limits on Iran's nuclear program with a few important issues unresolved. This issue guide provides links to resources that examine the background of these talks, what's at stake regionally and geopolitically, and the implications for U.S. policy in the region.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne on April 2, 2015. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Reuters)

CFR Global Conflict Tracker: Iranian Nuclear Crisis
CFR's Center for Preventive Action compiles resources on the Iranian nuclear negotiations and its ramifications for regional security.

CFR Event: Deadline for the Deal—Opportunities and Pitfalls for U.S.-Iran Relations
At a June 19 meeting, CFR's Philip Gordon and Ray Takeyh and former top IAEA official Olli Heinonen examine the Iran nuclear deal and the challenges in finalizing it, including inspections, sanctions relief, and domestic obstacles.

CFR Crisis Guide: Iran
This Emmy-winning CFR interactive traces Iran's history, its evolution as an Islamic republic, and its controversial nuclear program.

USIP: Iran Primer
The U.S. Institute of Peace's guide to the nuclear negotiations offers wide-ranging background on Iran's politics, economy, foreign relations, and its society, in addition to running commentary, by both Western and Iranian authors.

New York Times: Timeline on Iran's Nuclear Program
Concerns about Iranian proliferation predate the Islamic Revolution, but have mounted in the last two decades. A New York Times timeline tracks developments in Iran's nuclear program since the 1950s, with an emphasis on the years since 2005, when Iran was declared noncompliant with its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

National Interest: Assessing an Iran Deal—5 Big Lessons from History
The Belfer Center's Graham Allison offers lessons gleaned from seven decades of arms-control agreements. "Negotiated agreements contributed significantly to the fact that we survived and, indeed, won the Cold War without nuclear Armageddon," he writes.

The Iranian Regime

New Yorker: The War That Haunts Iran's Negotiators
Iran's eight-year-long war with Iraq, in which Washington provided covert support to Saddam Hussein, motivated the Islamic Republic to resume the ousted shah's nuclear program and helped shape the worldviews of Iran's nuclear negotiators today, writes Robin Wright. 

U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices in 2014: Iran
The annual State Department survey of rights, drawing heavily on non-U.S. government sources, found significant problems in Iran, including severe restrictions on civil liberties and "disregard for the physical integrity of persons, whom authorities arbitrarily and unlawfully detained, tortured, or killed."

CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum: How to Promote Human Rights in Iran
By highlighting Iran's human rights record, even amid sensitive nuclear negotiations, the Obama administration can convey to Tehran the importance it attaches to how Iran treats its citizens, writes CFR's Ray Takeyh.

Cairo Review: How a Nuclear Deal Helps Democracy in Iran
Western critics of negotiations who focus on proposed sunset clauses ignore that Iran is already embroiled in a crisis of domestic legitimacy, argues the University of Denver's Nader Hashemi. Democratic activists, whose ambitions were put on hold after the 2009 crackdown, are likely to get a boost in the next fifteen years with the inevitable departure of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

CFR Event: A Conversation With Mohammad Javad Zarif
Iran's foreign minister discusses what Tehran sees as the path to a successful nuclear deal, his country's opposition to the self-declared Islamic State, and broader interests in the Middle East.

The Diplomatic Path

Belfer Center: Comparing U.S. and Iranian Positions on Nuclear Framework
Public concerns over negotiations mounted in April when the United States and Iran released fact sheets offering different interpretations of what had been agreed to as the baseline for negotiations in April 2015. Harvard University's Belfer Center has compiled the primary sources and compares U.S. and Iranian statements on the major issues under negotiation.

Politico Magazine: The Iran Endgame
Negotiators have resolved as much as 90 percent of the issues necessary for an Iran nuclear deal. Among the most important still to be decided is the question of effective verification, writes CFR's Philip Gordon.

Foreign Affairs: Iran's Power Lobby
Iranian and European energy concerns interested in Iran's vast untapped resources in oil and gas are driving the nuclear deal, write Tara Shirvani and Sinisa Vukovic.

Brookings: A Rare Bipartisan Consensus on the Iran Nuclear Negotiations
A Washington Institute study group that includes former Democratic and Republican officials outlined "reasonable and achievable recommendations" for a final agreement that are "consistent with what the administration has been trying to achieve."

Expert Testimony: Evaluating Key Components of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran
"During the process of negotiations, Iran has cleverly sustained its essential redlines while the United States has systematically abandoned the sensible prohibitions that have long guided its policy toward this important security challenge," CFR's Ray Takeyh told the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs on June 25. Experts David Albright and Jim Walsh also testified on the criteria by which a comprehensive agreement should be evaluated.

Foreign Affairs: Deal With It
Former top U.S. nuclear negotiator Gary Samore examines the gaps that remain following the April 2 framework agreement between Iran and international powers. "To get the best deal, the U.S. negotiators should not be driven by the June 30 deadline," he writes. "The United States should present a common front and let time work on its side." 

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: Red Lines on Nuclear Deal
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took a hard line on inspections and other facets of the negotiations one week ahead of the June 30 deadline. The U.S. Institute of Peace compiled these presumptive "red lines."

Bloomberg: Bunker-Buster Bomb No Sure Way to Stop Iran If Talks Fail
"The prospect of an attack on Iran hovers over debate about what the U.S. should do if a solid agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program can’t be reached," but many defense officials and analysts say such a military option would likely only set back Iran's efforts by a few years.

The Sanctions Question

CFR Backgrounder: International Sanctions on Iran
Unprecedented international consensus on sanctions on Iran's energy and banking sectors imposed steep costs on the Iranian government and brought it to negotiate over its nuclear program. This CFR Backgrounder explains the U.S., EU, and UN legal frameworks, their impacts, and the mechanisms for lifting them.

CNAS: Iran's Economic Reintegration—Sanctions Relief, Energy, and Economic Growth Under a Nuclear Agreement with Iran
"Iran's economic reintegration will not occur quickly or with tremendous ease, and this will test the credibility of a potential deal between Iran and its international negotiating partners," write Elizabeth Rosenberg and Sara Vakhshouri. The United States should facilitate the private sector's reentry into Iran while clarifying when and how sanctions would be reimposed if Iran cheats in order to bolster Iran's commitment to a potential deal, they argue.

Reuters: Calibrating the Risk of Iran Sanctions Relief
Former U.S. sanctions official Richard Nephew argues that the regional security implications of sanctions relief are manageable. Iran will invest much of this peace dividend on domestic purposes and its support for regional clients or proxy forces have always been driven by foreign policy interests.

International Crisis Group: Spider Web—The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions
In a 2013 report, the International Crisis Group notes that "the West and Iran view the sanctions through highly dissimilar prisms." The regime in Tehran, seeking to deter threats to its survival, may adapt to sanctions while continuing to pursue a nuclear weapon, undermining the coercive objectives of the nuclear-related sanctions.

After the Agreement

New Yorker: The Nuclear Deal's Adversaries Back Home
"Campaigns against a deal are already in full swing in both Washington and Tehran. If an agreement eventually emerges, both parties will have to sell it to constituencies that remain skeptical because of the even more tortured history between the two countries," writes Robin Wright.

Arms Control Association: The Verification Challenge—Iran and the IAEA
Veteran IAEA inspector Thomas E. Shea discusses how the nuclear watchdog would go about verifying Iran's compliance with nuclear commitments. The agency must design its procedures with the assumption that "that Tehran might decide to act to acquire nuclear weapons," Shea writes.

Regional Fallout

Foreign Affairs: The Middle East After Vienna
The RAND Corporation's Dalia Dassa Kaye argues that critics of a deal must take into consideration likely regional consequences of failure to secure an agreement. She highlights Iran resuming its nuclear-enrichment program, the erosion of international sanctions, the risk of Iran escalating its "regional activism," and "the loss of opportunities [for Washington and Tehran] to work on major areas of common concern."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Address to U.S. Congress
Addressing a joint session of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the nuclear deal under negotiation put Israel's survival at stake. An agreement, he said, would not dismantle Iran's nuclear program and would encourage regional aggression.

Foreign Affairs: A Nuclear Deal Israel Could Live With 
Israel and the United States see the the Iranian nuclear threat differently, but a comprehensive agreement that satisfies both their security needs can be reached, write Amos Yadlin, a retired chief of Israeli military intelligence, and Avner Golov.

National Interest: No, Iran Isn't Destabilizing the Middle East
CIA veteran Paul Pillar challenges the argument that Iran's regional policies are uniquely harmful to regional security and are reason to abandon the nuclear negotiations. "Every state competes for influence. Such efforts to compete are called foreign policy," he writes.

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