Nuclear talks: The real test for Iran

There is no nuclear deal with Iran — and it is unlikely an agreement will be reached by the June 30 deadline. The sides haven't even started to negotiate a text clearly spelling out their respective responsibilities.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors (2nd-3rd L) and Iranian technicians at the Natanz nuclear power plant, Iran.
Kazem Ghane | AFP | Getty Images
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors (2nd-3rd L) and Iranian technicians at the Natanz nuclear power plant, Iran.

The framework established at recent talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, between Iran and the U.S., France, Britain and Germany, is merely an interim agreement on principles. Progress to date has been considerable. Yet, serious differences remain — specifically on what will be done with Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium and when sanctions will be lifted.

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The U.S. insists that Iran reduce the level of enrichment at its Natanz nuclear facility, thereby ensuring that uranium can only be used for civilian purposes. It also wants Iran to reduce its fuel stockpile and cut the number of centrifuges in Natanz by about a third.

Iranian officials agreed to modify Natanz in the short term. However, Iran insists on its right to conduct research and development for the purpose of developing new centrifuges to enrich uranium — and on retaining its stockpile.

Sanctions are a key sticking point. Iranian negotiators expect full sanctions relief as soon as a text is announced on June 30. The U.S. prefers a gradual lifting of sanctions calibrated to benchmarks. Ayatollah Khamenei is already shifting the goalposts, demanding that all sanctions are lifted immediately upon signing a final accord.

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Unfettered access is another sticking point. International inspectors must be able to ensure that Iran is fulfilling its commitments. The International Atomic Energy Agency's Optional Protocol permits intrusive inspections. It is the best way to sustain voluntary acceptance of nuclear safeguards and provide assurance that nuclear activities are only directed toward peaceful purposes. Inspections are consistent with President Ronald Reagan's approach during START II negotiations: "trust but verify."

So far, Iran refuses to sign the Optional Protocol. Ayatollah Khamenei unequivocally rejects inspections at military facilities. The Lausanne framework envisions a mechanism to adjudicate disputes. However, it is unworkable to bureaucratize access every time there is a dispute.

When talks resume, nothing should be left to chance. The final agreement must address every detail so there is no confusion when it comes time to implement. Binding agreements do not tolerate ambiguity or leave room for interpretation.

The nuclear deal would prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. It would reintegrate Iran into the international system, buying time for political reform and the establishment of a regime that genuinely forsakes nuclear weapons. Negotiations will test whether Iran is serious about a verifiable agreement, normalizing relations with the West.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign- affairs experts to the State Department. His new book is "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East."

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