Editor's Note: Negotiators from Iran and six world powers — the United States, United Kingdom, China, France, Russia and Germany — are on the verge of culminating a two-year process aimed at reintroducing Tehran back into the international community. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said July 6 that a final accord is within reach. However, the yearslong process has been plagued by missed deadlines, the most recent of which being the June 30 deadline that was extended to July 7. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said July 5 that "hard choices" would be required to meet the current deadline, which is not regarded by Tehran as absolute. From the American position, a deal must be submitted to the U.S. Congress for approval by July 9.
Though Tehran has complied with some of the key conditions of talks by lowering its enriched uranium stockpiles and granting access to certain nuclear facilities, sticking points remain. Beyond the nuclear deal, consternation on the Iranian side persists over the scope of inspections, the pace of sanction relief and a United Nations probe into Tehran's ballistic missile program. Iran wants all technical issues pertaining to its nuclear program to be solved within the International Atomic Energy Agency without the involvement of the U.N. Security Council. Yukiya Amano, director general of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, met with the secretary-general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, in Tehran on July 2 in effort to find solutions to the outstanding issues.
In anticipation of an accord, Stratfor is republishing this chronology outlining the steps toward a potentially momentous agreement.
July 1, 2015: During the American Civil War in 1864, a prisoner of war camp was set up in southwest Georgia near the town of Andersonville. Guard stations topped the log walls and a shallow ditch was dug several feet from the camp walls. Anyone who dared to cross or stumble near that ditch was shot dead. Thus, during a brutal summer in the Confederacy, the concept of a "dead line" was born.
Tuesday was a day of missed deadlines. For the third time, Iran and the six world powers granted themselves more time to try and finalize a nuclear deal. Greece missed its deadline to make a $1.9 billion debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund, and at midnight, the second bailout program for Greece expired without a deal, making it all the more difficult for the European Central Bank to continue financial assistance to Athens.
June 24, 2015: Iran's parliament voted Tuesday to approve a bill that sets strict limits on international inspections of Iranian nuclear sites, a hotly debated aspect of negotiations between Iran and the six world powers. The bill would prevent the Iranian negotiating team from agreeing to allow foreign access to Iranian military sites, areas deemed as strategic to Iranian security, non-nuclear facilities and Iranian scientists. The bill still needs approval from the Guardian Council, Iran's top legal vetting body, which is charged with interpreting the constitution and approving the eligibility of political candidates. The Guardian Council is expected to approve the bill as part of a tacit negotiation between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the parliament.
May 27, 2015: Of all the upheavals in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran's growing regional power might turn out to be the one with the greatest geopolitical effects.
Some governments see Iranian preeminence as inevitable, leading them to react by leaning toward Tehran. Others are doing just the opposite, talking darkly of preemptive strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities or plunging into a Middle Eastern arms race. "Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too," former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal said just a few weeks ago. But in some ways the most radical move of all has been the willingness of the Great Satan to consider partially normalizing relations with a founder member of the Axis of Evil. "If it evolves into something solid," George Friedman observed of the diplomatic efforts in his Geopolitical Diary on April 2, "then we can look at this as the day the United States kicked over the table and started a new game."
Everything seems to be up in the air, but — as is so often the case — taking a long-term perspective can help us make sense of the shifting strategic landscape.
April 2, 2015: The United States and Iran, along with other members of the Western negotiating coalition, reached an agreement whose end point will be Iran's monitored abandonment of any ambition to build nuclear weapons, coupled with the end of sanctions on Iran's economy. It is not a final agreement. That will take until at least June 30. There are also powerful forces in Iran and the United States that oppose the agreement and might undermine it. And in the end, neither side is certain to live up the deal. Nevertheless, there has been an agreement between the Great Satan and a charter member of the Axis of Evil, and that matters. But it matters less for what it says about Iran's nuclear program, or economic sanctions, than for how it affects the regional balance of power, a subject we wrote on in this week's Geopolitical Weekly.
April 2, 2015: After double overtime negotiations in Lausanne, Iran and the six world powers announced a framework deal that largely covers the key sticking points of a nuclear agreement, leaving the technical details to be worked out over the next three months. Though there are several critical ambiguities in the joint statement, on the whole this statement is highly favorable to Iran. The careful wording was designed to enable Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to sell this deal at home and could help stave off U.S. congressional dissent in the months leading up to the June 30 deadline — though this deal will not depend on congressional approval for implementation.
Feb. 4, 2015: More than two weeks after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took a 15-minute stroll in Geneva with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran's hard-line journalists and politicians are still lambasting the foreign minister for the seemingly innocuous move. As parliament grilled him, Zarif defended himself by arguing he had just taken a midnight flight followed by five hours of intense negotiations and needed fresh air. His opponents, however, charged him with "trampling the blood of martyrs" and of displaying a level of intimacy appropriate only for lovers or "partners of international thievery."
Jan. 13, 2015: The coming week will be an important one for Iran's relations with the United States. With just six weeks to go before the deadline in the nuclear negotiations, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will travel to Geneva to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Jan. 14. The two will discuss ways to speed up the negotiating process, and then U.S. and Iranian negotiating teams will spend Jan. 15-17 working out technical details of the agreement. Finally, on Jan. 18, Iran will meet with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany to round out this stage of the negotiation.
Jan. 5, 2015: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has managed to undermine his right-wing opponents, who primarily are led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This progress could mature into a more sustainable lead for Rouhani's pragmatic conservatives, provided the president can demonstrate that his policy of negotiating with the United States has strengthened the Islamic republic. If Rouhani fails to show progress, his present gains will dissipate, and Iran's conservatives could also resurge.
Jan. 12, 2015: An understanding between Washington and Tehran will endure this year and Iran will maintain limits on enrichment activity while the United States gradually eases sanctions, relying principally on executive power to do so. Lower oil prices will constrain Iran, as will the prospect of Iran becoming a more politically viable energy alternative to Russia. These limits will help underpin this negotiation. However, the political complexities surrounding this process, along with technical constraints, mean the Iranian energy sector is unlikely to see a revival this year that significantly increases the amount of Iranian oil on the market.
Nov. 24, 2014: The second deadline to reach a final agreement on Iran's controversial nuclear program has expired, with both Iran and the six world powers agreeing on a second extension that gives them seven months to reach a comprehensive agreement. The United States and Iran were not expected to reach a final agreement by the Nov. 24 deadline. What is more important is that the negotiations have reached a point where both sides have an interest in continuing discussions until they reach a settlement. In the long run, the nuclear issue is not as important for either side as the regional dynamics are.
July 8, 2014: Iran and Western powers face a looming deadline to either reach a negotiated settlement on Iran's nuclear program or agree to continue negotiations. We do not expect Iran and the P-5+1 group (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) to reach a final agreement by the initial deadline of July 20, but both sides will demonstrate enough progress in the negotiations to continue to work toward a comprehensive settlement. U.S. President Barack Obama will rely on his executive authority to reduce sanctions pressure on Iran, including relaxing enforcement of current trade and financial sanctions, in order to help Tehran's negotiating team maintain enough leeway within Iran to continue talks. Iranian energy exports could grow slowly toward the end of the quarter as Iran and its large Asian customers take advantage of the minor sanctions relief, but we still do not expect a wholesale lifting of oil sanctions on Iran or significant Western investment into Iran's energy sector this year.
July 2, 2014: As foreign diplomats arrived in Vienna on July 2 for the sixth round of talks between representatives of Iran and P-5+1 countries, key sticking points remained unresolved. Ahead of the July 20 deadline, the most important topics are the future of Iran's uranium enrichment program, concerns about the heavy-water plutonium reactor in Arak and the extent to which the United States and the European Union will roll back sanctions. The P-5+1 is composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany, but it is Russia that will be the key player to watch as the talks progress. Moscow wants to improve its relationship with Iran to undermine the potential new balance of power in the Middle East, a balance that would free up U.S. resources and allow Washington to counter Russian influence. While recent Russian outreaches to the Iranians are unlikely to prevent a transitional agreement with Washington in the coming weeks, Iran will continue to exploit the U.S.-Russia split to enhance its negotiating position against the United States.
Jan. 29, 2014: The nuclear talks with Iran have two meanings. For those highly skeptical of the process the talks are, or should be, about nuclear weapons — and about preventing Iran from obtaining them. For the Obama administration, which is committed to the process, the nuclear issue is partly a pretext, something that must be finessed, in order to reach a strategic understanding with Iran.
Jan. 23, 2014: The preliminary agreement over Iran's nuclear program is nearing implementation. But for all that has been said about how a rapprochement will affect bilateral ties, it is worth noting how it will affect each country individually. Since September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has often said he wants to repair ties with the United States. This is partly because the stakes are higher for the Islamic republic, which could change fundamentally if Tehran normalized relations with Washington.
Jan. 5, 2014: Efforts to achieve a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the United States will remain at center stage in 2014. Stratfor founder and Chairman George Friedman predicted this outcome in Chapter 7 of his 2011 book, The Next Decade. To give our subscribers a more comprehensive look at the geopolitical realities that produced the current state of affairs and that will continue to steer the detente process, Stratfor republishes that chapter in its entirety.
Dec. 19, 2013: The resurfacing in Iranian and U.S. media of the case of missing U.S. citizen Robert Levinson offers a small but revealing snapshot of the ongoing thaw of ties between Washington and Tehran. In a news conference Dec. 17, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham reiterated Iran's claim that Levinson is no longer in the country. Afkham went on to mention Iran's concern over Iranian detainees in the United States — a sign that Tehran may be pursuing a prisoner swap with Washington as part of broader negotiations.
Nov. 25, 2013: What was unthinkable for many people over many years happened in the early hours of Nov. 24 in Geneva: The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran struck a deal. After a decadelong struggle, the two reached an accord that seeks to ensure that Iran's nuclear program remains a civilian one. It is a preliminary deal, and both sides face months of work to batten down domestic opposition, build convincing mechanisms to assure compliance and unthread complicated global sanctions.
Aug. 2, 2013: Diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington will improve after Iran's new president assumes office Aug. 4, ending months of speculation over whether Iran and Washington will find accommodation in their nuclear standoff. In fact, in recent weeks both sides have expressed interest in resuming bilateral nuclear talks. Those talks never took place simply because Iran never had to participate in them. Its economy was in decent shape despite the sanctions, its regional geopolitical position had been secure and its domestic political environment was in disarray. But now things are different. Tehran is devoting an unsustainable amount of resources to Syrian President Bashar al Assad in his fight against the Syrian rebellion. And while economic sanctions have not yet forced Iran to the negotiating table, Iranian leaders will likely choose to engage the United States voluntarily to forestall further economic decline. The inauguration of President-elect Hassan Rouhani provides an ideal opportunity for them to do so.
Nov. 6, 2012: In a press conference Saturday night, Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Hassan Asafari spoke about Tehran's willingness to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium to 20 percent. Saudi-owned Al Arabiya apparently misquoted Asafari, reporting that Iran had suspended uranium enrichment as a goodwill gesture ahead of the yet-to-be-scheduled resumption of the P-5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) nuclear talks with Iran. On Sunday, however, Asafari clarified on the English-language website of Iran's state-owned Press TV that the country had in fact not halted 20 percent enrichment, but he maintained that Tehran — in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions — would accept enriched uranium from abroad to supply its five-megawatt Tehran Research Reactor for civilian use.
Oct. 23, 2012: Emerging conditions have created a framework for serious negotiations to develop between Iran and the United States. The dialogue would not only address the issue of Iran's nuclear program but also include broader issues, such as Syria and Afghanistan, and the core issue of what level of recognition the United States is willing to give to an Iranian sphere of influence in the region. Over the past several weeks, Stratfor has carefully tracked the signs pointing to this dialogue as Iran — using Turkey as a facilitator — has attempted to feel out a dialogue with Washington. The pieces appear to be falling in place, but there is still the matter of getting past the U.S. election before any bold moves are attempted by either side to carry the conversation forward.
Nov. 8, 2011: Details and specifics of the forthcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on the Iranian nuclear program continued to leak out over the weekend, with the formal report expected later this week. The growing rhetoric about Iran — including talk from certain Israeli and American corners about an air campaign against Iran — had already begun to intensify in anticipation of the report, which will say more explicitly than previous IAEA assessments that Iran is indeed actively pursuing a nuclear weaponization program.
March 1, 2010: The United States apparently has reached the point where it must either accept that Iran will develop nuclear weapons at some point if it wishes, or take military action to prevent this. There is a third strategy, however: Washington can seek to redefine the Iranian question. As we have no idea what leaders on either side are thinking, exploring this represents an exercise in geopolitical theory. Let's begin with the two apparent stark choices.