Too Much Time on Their Hands: The Joint Plan and Deadlines on Iran Negotiations

By Stephen Levy 

The Joint Plan of Action, the interim agreement made between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and Germany (P5+1) and Iran in 2013 set the final deadline on a permanent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program on November 24, 2014. On that date, however, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement, and extended the deadline to March 24, 2015.

The continuation of negotiations has angered two influential parties with additional political motives. First is Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, whose party is clinging to a narrow lead in the polls for a March Knesset election primarily due to Netanyahu’s national security credentials. Netanyahu has consistently opposed striking a deal with Iran, and warned the West that only continued sanctions would end the crisis. U.S. Republicans in Congress, joined by multiple Democrats, have also proposed additional sanctions against Iran should it fail to negotiate in good faith. House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to give a speech in front of a Joint Session of Congress, setting off fierce discussions on whether the President can meet with leaders up for election, whether Congress and the White House should coordinate on speeches by foreign diplomats to Congress, and the relationship between Israel and Iran itself.

President Barack Obama, having promised to reach out to Iran with an open hand in the 2008 election, is in no mood to cease negotiations. Obama condemned the movement in Congress to pass more sanctions, saying that diplomacy needed more time. Additionally, Obama’s administration, voicing its opinion via anonymous White House comments to the New York Times, expressed its displeasure with Netanyahu over his politics and scheming, and hinted that Netanyahu’s maneuvers were damaging Israel’s relationship with the U.S., at least for the duration of Obama’s presidency.

The Administration’s comments have spurred support and discussion on sanctions, rather than ending them. Far from harming Netanyahu politically for threatening the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the anonymous comments in the New York Times have instead led Israelis to condemn American intervention in Israeli politics. Netanyahu has continued to poll well, especially after an Israeli attack killing Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general in Syria was followed up by deadly missile strikes by Hezbollah. And, Congressional Republicans are pushing a conditional Iran sanctions bill anyways, as Congressional Democrats struggle to decide whether or not to attend Netanyahu’s speech. Despite ongoing criticism at home and abroad, Netanyahu has not canceled his speech.

Iran has also made negotiations more difficult. Members of Iran’s parliament are writing a bill ending cooperation with the Joint Plan of Action. Iran has also attempted to circumvent sanctions through falsifying documents, mixing fuels, and dumping fuel in remote ports. Additionally, Iran has continued its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the West has until recently called for Assad’s removal from the presidency.

However, some factors may indicate that Iran is willing to negotiate in good faith. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, widely viewed as the true center of power in Iran, has said that he would support a deal with the P5+1 that lifted the sanctions, so long as it did not violate Iran’s sovereignty. President Rouhani and his advisors have continued negotiations with the P5+1, despite the actions by Netanyahu and Congress. Perhaps most importantly, Iran lacks the economic ability to withstand sanctions for much longer. The Joint Plan slightly eased sanctions, but the recent price drop in oil has damaged the Iranian economy, which is heavily dependent on oil.

The P5+1 should be wary in its negotiations. Iran has continued to deny that it had sought nuclear weapons, and Rouhani and his negotiators may carry little weight in actual decision-making. Moreover, a deal made with Iran on nuclear proliferation will likely not apply to Iran’s continued support for proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other states, accused of both terrorism and instability throughout the region. Thus, Israel and Congress, along with many other groups and states, may not be happy even if a deal is reached in March.