Five Things You Need to Know About the Iran Nuclear Talks

Five quick observations about tomorrow’s negotiations between the so-called P5 + 1 (the permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany) and the Islamic Republic of Iran. (More observations to come, undoubtedly.):

1. This meeting represents the first actual negotiation between Iran and the P5 + 1. Previous iterations of these negotiations were held even though there was no possible chance of agreement. They were held in part to demonstrate a Western willingness to talk and to forestall an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites: It would have been exceedingly hard for Israel to attack Iran while negotiations -- even useless negotiations -- were taking place. This remains particularly true today.

2. The Iranian delegation is going to Geneva in order to offer the minimum concessions necessary to win the maximum level of sanctions relief (the sanctions that deny Iran access to the international banking system are the most crucial). These concessions could include a promise of increased transparency, in which the international community might be granted greater visibility into Iranian nuclear sites. But because the Iranians have already promised to reject any call to ship out enriched uranium, whatever the Iranians offer this week -- here comes a bold prediction -- will not put Iran on a quick path to the easing of sanctions.

3. However: One of the American delegates to these talks is Adam Szubin, the director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions regime. His presence at the talks may be a signal that the U.S. is willing to put sanctions relief on the table quickly.

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4. My impression is that the Barack Obama administration would not particularly mind rewarding interim Iranian concessions with the unfreezing of certain Iranian assets held in Western banks. This would cause an uproar among hardliners -- the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would certainly be unhappy -- but the White House could state, truthfully, that it has not tampered with the sanctions. A one-time transfer of cash to Iran does not necessarily signal permanent change, although it would certainly be interpreted that way in many quarters.

5. Reducing Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is an important goal, but a more important goal for the West would be to make sure Iran isn’t building redundant enrichment facilities. There is a chance, of course, that Iran already has secret nuclear facilities (both the Natanz facility and the Fordo facility were carefully hidden from prying eyes for several years before they were discovered), so redundancy might be an intelligence problem, rather than a negotiations problem. But it seems useful to remember that real redundancy in the Iranian nuclear apparatus -- 15 or 20 or 30 different facilities, spread throughout the country -- would make it much harder for Obama (to say nothing of Netanyahu) to credibly threaten military force. It is the all-options-are-on-the-table threat that, with sanctions, is bringing Iran to the table.

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