Philip Hammond

British foreign secretary: Differences remain, But nuclear deal possible in ‘next 48 hours’

Just days before a key deadline in the Iran nuclear talks, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond expressed confidence that if a compromise is reached, negotiators would be able to present an agreement that clarifies two key sticking points: how long a final deal would be in effect and how far it pushes back Iran’s breakout time to acquiring weapons-grade uranium.

“I think we will be able to be pretty clear about the breakout time,” Hammond told reporters at the British ambassador’s residence on Friday. Leaked reports about the negotiations suggest a deal may place strict curbs on Iran’s program for 10 to 15 years and that Iran’s breakout capacity will be pushed back to one year.

Getting Tehran to agree to specific provisions in writing could be essential to convincing U.S. lawmakers to hold off on legislation under consideration in the Senate that would impose new sanctions on Tehran or mandate an up-or-down vote on a final deal. The White House says those bills would blow up the fragile negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1. But Republicans, and a significant number of Democrats, have told the White House that Iran’s failure to spell out specific concessions by the March deadline is a sign that Tehran is trying to prolong the process and an indication that additional pressure through legislation is needed.

The problem for negotiators is that the internal politics in Iran are pushing that country in the opposite direction. Instead of agreeing to a framework agreement by the March 31 deadline and then a final deal this summer, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that he wants a single deal at the end of the talks. That’s made it more difficult for Iranian negotiators to agree to specifics during the current talks, a point Hammond conceded on Friday.

“The challenge is: as soon as you write anything down, you’ve got to write everything down,” he said.

Still, Hammond said if the P5+1 produce an agreement, they’ll be able to sell the merits of a final deal to the world.

“We envisage being able to deliver a narrative,” he said. “This will be a political statement, or perhaps political statements from the P5+1 and Iran which create enough momentum to make it clear that we’ve now got this boulder over the hill and we are into the detailed work to produce an agreement.”

While such a statement may satisfy some international observers, Congress is likely to be a much tougher sell.

Hawkish lawmakers want to see a deal that stays in effect far beyond 10 years, significantly reduces the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to spin, and restricts how much nuclear material Iran can keep. It is unlikely that a framework agreement will go into the details about the centrifuges or nuclear material storage. It’s also unclear if the framework will discuss the spinningof centrifuges at Iran’s underground bunker in Fordo — a topic that a number of lawmakers raised concerns about on Thursday after the Associated Press reported that the U.S. may be willing to allow such activity to continue after a deal.

It’s also possible that a deal does not materialize. Hammond and U.S. officials have repeatedly said that “there are still some areas where we are significantly apart,” Hammond said on Friday.

“It’s going to require a significant move by the Iranians to reach our red line positions,” said Hammond.

Still, a deal seems near, with foreign ministers announcing preparations to fly out to Lausanne, Switzerland this weekend if the negotiators reach what would be a historic agreement. Sunday is shaping up as the pivotal day because Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to travel to Switzerland from Friday to Sunday and Kerry is slated to leave for Boston on Monday.

“We’re hopeful that we’re going to be making that progress over the next 48 hours, and I’m ready to go whenever I need to go, over the weekend,” Hammond said.

By Foreign Policy