The momentum created by these interim agreements could lead to final settlements. Strategically, the Obama administration’s embrace of diplomacy is a welcome shift from a long-running American tendency to resort to military force in the Middle East.
But enormous obstacles must be overcome in all three cases before they can be declared diplomatic triumphs.
In future Iran talks, the core unresolved issue is whether Tehran will be able to have a limited, tightly monitored nuclear energy program that enriches uranium to 3.5 percent, far below nuclear weapons level. Officials from Iran’s newly elected, relatively moderate government say it would be politically impossible for them to accept an agreement that does not include some form of nuclear energy program. This is a right, they argue, that all countries have under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Skeptics in Congress and Israel insist that Tehran’s previous cheating means it should have no nuclear program at all. White House officials appear to be willing to accept a small, exhaustively monitored Iranian nuclear energy program. Kerry denied that the interim agreement recognized Iran’s right to enrichment—though the preamble does state it would be the goal of a final agreement.
“This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program,” the preamble states, “with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”
It remains unclear whether the administration can convince key congressional Democrats who are deeply skeptical of Iran—such as Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)—that some Iranian enrichment is tenable. Israeli officials have been adamant that no enrichment should occur in Iran.
In many ways, the interim Iran agreement Kerry hammered out in Geneva last weekend is similar to his resurrection of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last summer. He has created a freeze in Iran’s nuclear program and a round of nuclear talks with Iran that will last six months. But he has not crafted a final, far-reaching pact that rolls back Iran’s nuclear program or normalizes its relations with the world.
In August, Kerry convinced the Israelis and Palestinians to engage in nine months of final status negotiations—the first direct talks between the two sides since 2010. But the historic disagreements that have divided the two sides for decades remain unresolved.
Kerry brought the two parties back to the table with a short-term deal. In stages over nine months, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords. In exchange, the Palestinians have agreed not to seek recognition as an independent nation from the United Nations during the course of the negotiations.
The insoluble underlying disputes—Israeli settlement building, Palestinian claims for a right of return to Israel proper and the status of Jerusalem—all remain unresolved. The two sides even failed to agree on whether Israel’s pre-1967 borders would be the basis of negotiations. All of those issues were ignored.