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What Do U.S. Negotiating Team Changes Mean for Iran Nuclear Talks?

By Jessica Michek

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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In the nearly two years since Iran and the P5+1 countries agreed to the Joint Plan of Action, one thing is drastically different—the U.S. negotiating team.

As the June 30 deadline for a final agreement approaches—after negotiations were extended in July 2014 and then again in November—the U.S. team handling the talks is quite changed from when these discussions began in November 2013.

Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs and chief nuclear negotiator with Iran for the past two years, plans to step down after the June 30 deadline. Now, talks are largely in the hands of a relative newcomer to the team who is an expert in the technical—not political—aspects of the negotiations, inserting yet another element of uncertainty into the delicate dance.

With Sherman’s impending departure, all of the top officials present at the beginning of the negotiating process will have left the Iran talks. Other diplomatic heavyweights who left include the behind-the-scenes players credited with bringing Iran back to the negotiating table through a series of secret meetings with Iranian officials in Oman: former Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and former National Security Advisor to the Vice President Jake Sullivan, who both left the administration in the fall of 2014.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been forced to deal with a broken femur from a bike accident, but insists that injury won’t keep him from involvement in negotiations. “I will be absolutely, fully and totally engaged in those talks. I am now. I haven’t missed a tick,” he told reporters as he left the hospital in Boston.

The negotiator that everyone is watching at this crucial juncture, who will also try to sell any deal to skeptical lawmakers in Washington, is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who joined negotiations for the first time in February 2015. An MIT physicist, Moniz is viewed as a credible source on the technical minutiae of a nuclear agreement. But, at this critical moment in the West’s talks with Iran, it remains to be seen whether he has the diplomatic chops to secure a deal – and not just any deal, but a good deal.

With two weeks left until the negotiating deadline, the issues still to be resolved are of a less technical nature—issues that Moniz was not brought into negotiations to focus on. Indeed, Moniz has described his role in negotiations as “fundamentally to resolve these technical dimensions. In doing so, we can uncouple that part from the political dimensions of the agreement.”

The political framework for a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program agreed to in April showed hugely varied understandings of crucial issues between the two sides, including the duration of the agreement, access to Iran’s nuclear and military sites, and a timeline for delivering sanctions relief. Without access to Iran’s nuclear and military sites, the United States and its allies will not be able to verify Iran’s compliance with the deal or detect covert attempts to achieve breakout. While Iran would prefer –and says negotiators have agreed to—upfront and total sanctions relief, the U.S. understanding of the framework states that sanctions relief will be limited to only nuclear-related sanctions, and tied to Iran’s compliance in addressing “key” nuclear concerns.

What negotiators decide on each of these issues will have a huge impact on the potency of a final deal. However, some critics are concerned that negotiators will offer Iran too many concessions in order to secure a deal by the deadline.  “It is breathtaking to see how far from your original goals and statements the P5+1 have come during negotiations with Iran,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) in a letter to Obama on June 15.

Given the limited roster of U.S. diplomats available to carry on negotiations with Iran, it seems that the United States is backtracking on some of the conditions it had previously stipulated for a good deal. Secretary Kerry said that accounting for Iran’s past activities related to nuclear weapons development is not a negotiating priority. “We are not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another,” he told reporters on June 16. However, this runs directly counter to the framework agreed to in April, which states: “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program.” Kerry, too, personally stressed the importance of resolving PMDs in April, saying in an interview, “It will be part of a final agreement. It has to be.”

With a depleted bench of negotiators, resolving these issues satisfactorily by the June 30 deadline will largely fall on Moniz’s shoulders.

Taylor Capps contributed to the post.