The only certainty from nuclear talks is a jump in Iran's oil exports
Published 08/04/2015 | 02:30
Beware diplomats bearing fact sheets; they rarely reveal the whole truth. The nuclear negotiations in Lausanne have already produced three separate fact sheets, issued by the United States, Iran and France, each highlighting different aspects of the emerging agreement.
But under all three versions, Iran's oil exports are likely to rise in 2016.
The battle of the fact sheets confirms the first rule of analysis: never trust a summary produced by someone else, always go back to the original documents.
In this instance, there is no final document setting out all the undertakings by the various parties because there are still significant areas of disagreement.
By reading the fact sheets side by side, however, the outlines of an eventual deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) are reasonably clear.
The basic bargain allows Iran to keep and gradually develop a complete fuel cycle in exchange for tough restrictions and inspections to ensure its activities have civilian uses.
It aims to ensure it would take a year or more for the country to produce enough fissionable material for a bomb in the event that the agreement breaks down at any point over the next 10 years.
While there are still many technical details to be negotiated, the outlines of the political-level agreement are clear, with all sides making big concessions compared with past negotiating positions.
Within minutes of the announcement of a preliminary framework between Iran and world powers on Thursday, the White House had issued a "fact sheet" presenting its interpretation of the emerging agreement.
The fact sheet succeeded in controlling the media and political narrative in the crucial 48 hours after the announcement but reflected only some of the understandings tentatively reached by diplomats. The US version devoted 31 paragraphs to new controls that would be established on Iran's nuclear activities but only eight to the issue of sanctions relief. While the sections on nuclear controls were highly specific, the parts on sanctions were notably vague about the timing and extent of relief.
Iran would have had no reason to agree to the deal as presented by US press officers, so it was immediately clear the fact sheet did not reflect the whole package of understandings. Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, complained it was much too early to start publishing fact sheets. Mr Zarif told an interviewer that "the Americans put what they wanted in the fact sheet... I even protested this issue with (US Secretary of State John) Kerry."
So Iran has now issued its own fact sheet, published by the Foreign Ministry in Farsi, and translated by various outside organisations.
Iran's version devotes more space to the removal of sanctions and goes into much greater detail about the extent and timing. Iran will be allowed to maintain a complete nuclear fuel cycle and continue enriching uranium to reactor grade, but be subject to strict controls on the number of centrifuges it can operate and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to account for nuclear materials.
Iran will be prohibited from enriching uranium beyond the 3.67pc used in civilian nuclear reactors for at least 15 years. Uranium that has already been enriched beyond this level will be blended down or exported.
Iran will sign and ratify the IAEA's Additional Protocol on inspections, which almost all IAEA members have already implemented, and reach agreement with the agency on measures related to disclosure of previous activities with a possible military dimension (PMD). The domestic enrichment programme will be restricted to fairly inefficient first-generation centrifuges for the initial 10 years of an agreement, though it will be allowed to continue research and development on more advanced models, which could be implemented after the end of the first 10-year period.
Enrichment activities will be concentrated at the above-ground (therefore bomb-able) Natanz facility, while the underground Fordow facility (which has been hardened against air strikes) will be converted to "an advanced nuclear and physics research centre".
Fordow will keep two operational centrifuge cascades and produce "stable isotopes" for civilian uses in industry, agriculture and medicine, according to Iran. The heavy water research reactor under development at Arak will be redesigned to limit the production of plutonium, while its reactor fuel will be reprocessed outside the country.
In exchange, Iran will get broad-based sanctions relief through a new UN Security Council resolution superseding previous resolutions concerning its nuclear programme.
The resolution will lift all UN-imposed multilateral sanctions, as well as EU and US sanctions relating to the nuclear programme, though not those linked to terrorism or human rights.
By employing the mechanism of a Security Council resolution, the United States will sidestep the need for a formal treaty with Iran.
Instead, the two sides will reach a binding deal within the framework of the United Nations that cannot be modified except with the consent of all five permanent members of the Security Council.
Employing the United Nations is meant to reassure Iran that any framework agreement will not be undone by the US Congress and ensures disagreements about implementation will be managed by all five permanent members of the Security Council, not the US alone.
However, the US will retain the "architecture" of its unilateral sanctions "for much of the duration of the deal" so they can "snap back" in the case of significant non-compliance.
Washington will retain a lot of leverage outside the UN framework.
The time frame for sanctions relief, crucial to oil markets because it would allow Iran to raise its exports by up to 1m barrels per day, has also emerged into clearer focus.
The most likely outcome is that it takes about six to 12 months to implement the first phase of the framework agreement, which would see nuclear-related sanctions on Iran's oil exports lifted sometime between January and June 2016.