Diplomats are drafting the final text of an accord with Iran that would relax international sanctions in return for caps on its nuclear program and more transparent inspections of atomic sites. Negotiators are hammering out the most contentious issues ahead of a self-imposed June 30 deadline.
Here’s an overview of progress and what may happen next.
How close is a deal?
Envoys agreed on April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the broad outlines of an accord that would end their decade-long dispute over Iran’s nuclear work.
According to the U.S. fact sheet released after the marathon round of talks, Iran agreed to enact deep cuts to its nuclear capacity for a decade. The country would also be permanently bound to the most intrusive verification regime available to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
What major hurdles remain?
The timing and pace of sanctions relief, along with the breadth and depth of inspections, continue to be the subject of public sparring between the sides.
Iran has said it wants all sanctions lifted when a deal is reached. The six nation group of world powers says the curbs, which range from restrictions on oil sales to those that cut the Islamic Republic off from global finance, can only be removed after an agreement is verifiably implemented.
How far and wide IAEA inspectors will be able to roam inside Iran has also triggered conflicting narratives. Some Iranian leaders have said inspectors will be barred from military sites, something that its interlocutors -- the U.S., China, Russia, U.K., France and Germany -- say would prevent a deal.
How will inspections be managed?
While the IAEA isn’t a direct party to the talks, the Vienna-based body will be at the center of any deal.
As a first step, the agency’s teams will have to issue an assessment of the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear work. The IAEA would also need to verify the implementation of any accord before sanctions relief is given.
Later, the IAEA’s verification remit would be broadened inside Iran under the Additional Protocol, a legally-binding instrument that would allow inspectors wider and faster access to sites of interest.
What about access to military sites?
Once Iran ratifies the Additional Protocol, IAEA inspectors can ask for access to any place inside Iran. Visits to sensitive sites like military bases aren’t however expected to become part of a systematic inspections regime.
While under the Additional Protocol inspectors can visit any declared nuclear site with only two hours notice, they would need to request an inspection of a location where undeclared activity is suspected. Such visits are considered complementary.
IAEA inspectors requested a total of 78 complementary visits in 2014 inside the 125 countries that have ratified the Additional Protocol.
Will negotiators meet their deadline?
Probably not. Envoys have missed all of their self-declared cutoffs to this point. They had originally sought a deal by July 2014. Failing to reach that milestone, they extended talks until November and then again to end March. The framework for their agreement wasn’t ready until April.
While all sides say that the detailed text for an accord could be ready by June 30, some negotiating parties have hinted that it could take a little longer. With the U.S. Congress -- which needs to review any deal with Iran -- on recess until July 6, negotiators have some wiggle-room to extend talks without disrupting the pace of an eventual accord’s implementation.
What happens if negotiations fail?
Failure would trigger what diplomats refer to as ‘The Blame Game’ -- rhetorical posturing that will ascribe the collapse to others’ intransigence. While Congress has threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran should the talks fail, European diplomats warned last month that international unity over trade and finance restrictions could slip.
Even with sanctions, periodically strengthened over the last decade, Iran’s total trade has grown by 70 percent since 2005. Sanctions haven’t prevented Iran from exponentially increasing its uranium-enrichment work over the last 10 years.
Failure to seal a deal would allow Iran to continue expanding its nuclear program and stockpiling fissile material. Diplomats have warned that would increase the probability of military conflict.
What’s at stake for Iran’s government?
President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 after pledging to engage the U.S. and get sanctions lifted. Reaching a nuclear deal is central to that mandate. A deal would embolden the president vis-a-vis his domestic rivals, potentially facilitating further political or social reforms.
A deal could free an estimated $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings that are inaccessible or restricted by sanctions -- a boon for a government that’s seen its revenue slashed by oil price slumps and restrictions on its crude exports.
The removal of international banking and trade sanctions against Iran would open doors to foreign investors, which are already eyeing a market of 80 million people for new opportunities.
Who are the biggest critics?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long accused Iranian officials of seeking to build nuclear weapons, is a top critic of the deal being considered. He argues that any agreement that lets Iran keep its nuclear infrastructure would be a threat to Israel.
Other vocal critics of a deal, including Republican senators in the U.S. Congress, say Iran cannot be trusted to meet its obligations, and advocate maintaining sanctions until more concessions are offered.
The deal also has opponents among Persian Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, which is alarmed by the prospect of Iran’s growing influence in the region, and wary that a nuclear deal might result in Iran’s rapprochement with the U.S., its long-time ally.
Hardliners in Iran, including members of its parliament, also view a deal that involves the U.S. with suspicion and have attacked Rouhani’s government for conceding too much. With Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in principle backing an accord, Iran’s domestic critics are unlikely to constitute an obstacle.