It was revealed late in the afternoon on the deadline of November 24, 2014, that the two parties still had significant differences to work out and that no comprehensive nuclear deal had been reached. After months of intense negotiations between Iran and world superpowers from the P5+1, the two groups could not come to an agreement by the deadline agreed to in July. The nuclear discussions were once again extended, this time for seven months. The negotiating teams hope to have a draft agreement by March 1, 2015, with a finalized agreement on the table ready to be accepted by all parties in July. Until a more comprehensive deal is reached, the conditions and stipulations of the current temporary deal remain in effect. As a part of this extension, Iranian officials are expected to allow United Nations inspectors increased access to workshops where Iranian centrifuges and rotors are built, in an effort to increase the transparency of their nuclear program and facilities. Negotiators are optimistic about prospects for an agreement in the coming months. John Kerry stated that new ideas had been brought to the table during the last days of negotiations and that the P5+1 "would be fools to walk away" now. After the announcement of the extension, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif smiled and stated during a press conference that "we don't need seven months." The Iranian government came out of these negotiations victorious, ensuring the continuation of the sanctions relief that has brought in $700 million per month since the temporary deal was reached, and ensuring that they can still continue their covert nuclear operations without having to open their doors and give in to increased international scrutiny of their nuclear facilities. (New York Times, November 25, 2014)
After harping for months that no deal is better than a bad deal, Israeli officials were happy with the outcome, favoring an extension of the talks over a bad deal that would leave Iran free to pursue their nuclear ambitions. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this extension of the negotiations gives the world " the opportunity to continue the economic pressures that have proven to be the only thing that have brought Iran to the table." Israeli officials expect a fresh round of crippling sanctions against Iran to come from the United States in response to a deal not being reached. Netanyahu stated that economic sanctions "are the route that needs to be taken" when dealing with Iran, and word of a nuclear extension brought a sense of relief to senior Israeli officials. (Washington Post, November 24, 2014)
Delivering his first remarks on the extension, on November 25 Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that the Western nations had "failed to bring [Iran] to it's knees." According to Khamenei's personal website, during a meeting with many of Iran's top Muslim clerics he stated that "In the nuclear issue, America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so — and they will not be able to do so." (New York Times, November 25 2014)
Following the announcement of an extension of the negotiations, South Korea made a $500 million payment to Iran for crude oil imports. Under the interim agreement Iran is allowed to access $700 million per month in sanctions relief in the form of oil payments from their frozen international bank accounts. According to official documents, Iran sold over $1.3 billion in oil to South Korea during 2014. A senior South Korean official told the International Business Times that "we had to play our role, as the international community agreed to unblock some of Iran's assets." (International Business Times, November 26 2014)
On November 30 2014, less than one week after the negotiations failed to bring about a more permanent solution to the Iranian nuclear dilema, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated to a group of senior Iranian Navy officials that "our armed forces should continuously improve their (combat) readiness, irrespective of political calculations". Khamenei's call for increased combat readiness and improvement regardless of the diplomatic and political situation was a bold move in the face of possible increased U.S. sanctions and international scrutiny of Iranian military activities. (Reuters, November 30 2014)
With the stipulations from the temporary agreement still in force until at least the end of June 2015, the IAEA requested more funds on December 3 to continue their monitoring of Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA detailed in a confidential note to members that they would need an estimated additional 4.6 million Euros ($5.67 million) in external contributions in order to continue their monitoring practices in the same way as before. Yukiya Amano, the director of the IAEA stated that "[any] member states which are in a position to do so to make the necessary funding available for the continuation of the agency’s monitoring and verification." (Reuters, December 3, 2014)
The IAEA announced on December 11 that they had indeed secured the funding required to continue their monitoring of Iran's nuclear program. At an IAEA meeting that week international donors including large contributors the Netherlands and Norway pledged more than the expected 4.6 million Euros, demonstrating the international support for avoiding a nuclear Iran.
Despite the international scrutiny of the nuclear program, on December 7 2014 Iran's President Hassan Rouhani announced a military spending hike of 33.5% in the state's 2015 budget, increasing spending to 282 trillion Iranian rials. Iran's 2015 general budget represents only a 6% increase in spending over 2014. (Reuters, December 7, 2014)
In allegations that had been previously unreported, in December 2014 U.S. officials accused Iran of breaching the nuclear sanctions placed on them by the United Nations by secretely seeking to acquire parts for a heavy water reactor that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons grade materials. U.S. and international monitors observed "no recent downturn in [Iranian] procurement" activities according to a November 7 report made public in early December. The extension of the negotiations was good news for countries looking to do business with Iran, and they took advantage of the favorable diplomatic climate. These accusations were taken with a grain of salt by the international community, as news like this usually takes a very long time to be released so the accusations may predate the interim agreement, meaning that Iran did not violate the agreement at least in this way. (Foreign Policy, December 8, 2014)
Negotiations between Iranian officials and the P5+1 resumed on December 17 in Geneva. After the first day of negotiations, Iranian officials claimed that the talks were proceeding in a "good atmosphere." On December 17 officials from Iran and various countries involved in the P5+1 efforts spent over six hours in the negotiating room, speaking on all topics but mostly covering sanctions.
The IAEA report for the end of 2014 included details that showed that Iran was cooperating in certain aspects with the temporary deal agreed to in January 2014. According to the report, the Iranians kept their word and continued to not enrich uranium over 5%, and had also not made any other technological advances at their nuclear facilities.
U.S. Secetary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reconvened with their respective negotiating teams in early January 2015 in Geneva, holding extensive and beneficial meetings. On Wednesday January 14 Kerry and Zarif had "substantive meetings for approximately five hours" and discussed "a broad range of issues with a small group of staff from each side" as reported by official sources. Following this meeting, after postponing his flight to Bulgaria Kerry returned to the hotel where negotiations were taking place and held a personal, unscheduled meeting with Zarif. This round of negotiations seemed to be going well, with Kerry and Zarif taking a break to stroll around Downtown Geneva. Before the negotiations began Secretary Kerry declared that "We are at a juncture where most of the issues are now getting fleshed out and understood." (Reuters, January 14 2015)
While the negotiating teams were hard at work on January 14th, the Iranian government made a troubling announcement. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced during a visit to the Bushehr nuclear power facility that the facility is to be expanded and that two new nuclear power facilities are to be built in the vicinity. The goal of these power plants is to increase nuclear power output according to the Iranian government. Rouhani firmly stated that "construction of two new power plants will increase the capacity of Bushehr province's power generation to 2,000 megawatts." (Fars News, January 14 2015)
The P5+1 and Iran are slated to continue nuclear negotiations in February 2015, after making limited progress during January. The negotiator from France, Nicolas de la Riviere told reporters that "The mood was very good, but I don't think we made a lot of progress." (Reuters, January 18 2015)
During U.S. President Barack Obama's January 2015 State of the Union address, he warned the new Republican controlled legislature against levying new sanctions on Iran, lest they unravel the progress that has been made in the negotiations so far. The President told the legislators that "New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails—alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear programme again." House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress in January 2015, in hopes of swaying them away from voting in favor of a bad nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu requested a meeting with President Obama during his visit and was given a public rejection, with National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan releasing a statement that read "As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country." (Foreign Policy, January 22 2015)
Democrats in Congress gave Obama and the negotiating teams substantial breathing room on January 27, when they announced that they would hold off on voting or moving any legislation forward that might tighten any penalties or sanctions against Iran until after March 24. Congressmen and government officials hope that this two month timeframe will be enough for the negotiating teams to come to a comprehensive and complete framework for ensuring Iran's nuclear program has only peaceful applications. Obama has stated that he will veto any sanctions bill that arrives on his desk while the negotiators are still attempting to reach a deal.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry appointed a new Iranian ambassador to the United Nations on January 28, 2015, Gholamali Khoshroo. Khoshroo is a career Iranian diplomat with close ties to some of the Iranian leadership including former President Mohammad Khatami and family ties with current President Hassan Rouhani. Prior to being appointed to this position, Khoshroo was serving as the Iranian diplomat to Switzerland. The Iranian Foreign Ministry released a statement in which they assured international leaders that Khoshroo had thus far played an integral part of the negotiations and has been active in Iran's nuclear discussion with the P5+1. (Al Monitor, January 28, 2015)
The U.S. Senate Banking Committee approved the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 on January 29, 2015, by an 18-4 vote. The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and although it did not impose any new sanctions on Iran, it increased the pressure on the Iranian regime. The act set in stone that if there is no agreement reached by the June 30 deadline all of the sanctions that were waived with the acceptance of the interim agreement would be put back in place. In addition, the act imposes monthly escalating sanctions begining in August should the negotiating teams fail to reach an agreement. The bill provides for President Obama to be able to shoot down any sanctions activity, should he feel that it would interfere with reaching a comprehensive deal. The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 will be passed on to the Senate for a vote, and if approved may still be vetoed by President Obama. (Govtrack.us)
Still wary of the prospect of a bad deal between the P5+1 and Iran, unnamed Israeli officials blasted the U.S. negotiating team on February 1, 2015, claiming that they have given the Iranians 80% of what they want during the negotiations, in return for very little. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver a speech to Congress on March 3, where he will warn them of the dangers of a bad nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu sees a nuclear capable Iran as the greatest threat to Israel, and is prepared to do everything in his power to ensure that Iran does not acquire weapons-grade nuclear materials. During a visit to soldiers wounded in an attack by Hezbollah on January 28, 2015, Netanyahu declared that "We are in a continuous struggle with Iran which is opening new fronts against us, which is engaged in terrorism in the Middle East and throughout the world. This is the same Iran that the world powers are now working toward an agreement that would leave in its hands the ability to develop a nuclear bomb. That is an agreement we are opposed to." (Jerusalem Post, January 30, 2015) In a campaign speech on February 9, Netanyahu stated that he is "determined to go to Washington and present Israel's position before the members of Congress and the American people." (Yahoo, February 9, 2015)
Netanyahu's invitation to speak to Congress was very controversial. He was invited to speak by House Speaker John Boehner, not President Obama, and was actually denied a request for a meeting with the President while in town delivering the speech. Spokespeople for the White House defended their rejection of his request, citing that it would be innapropriate to meet with a foreign leader so close to their country's elections. Critics argued that the invitation was being used as political showboating and manipulation, with the Republicans just inviting Netanyahu to bash President Obama and using him to get a tougher deal on Iran. It is unprecedented for Congress to conduct foreign relations bypassing the President like this, and Congressional Democrats were upset because Boehner, a Republican, invited Netanyahu without consulting with President Obama first. Many Democrats in the House and Senate have said that they will be skipping Netanyahu's speech, including the U.S.'s most senior lawmaker Senator Patrick Leahy, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative Jim McDermot, and Senator Bernie Sanders. A letter petitioning to postpone the speech was circulated around Capital Hilll on February 9, by Representatives Keith Ellison, Steve Cohen and Maxine Waters. The letter does not state that the undersigned members will not be attending, but rather just petitions for a postponement of the speech. All in all, one quarter of Democrats ended up skipping Netanyahu's speech. (Bloomberg, February 9, 2015)
Speaking under the condition of anonymity, officials close to the negotiations in early February in Vienna detailed to the Associated Press that U.S. and Iranian negotiating teams may be moving closer to a compromise on Iran's nuclear program. The compromise focuses on neutralizing much of Iran's capacity to make nuclear weapons by reducing the amount of nuclear material that their centrifuges can produce, while keeping a good amount of their centrifuges running. The compromise would also include stipulations such as: Iran would only be allowed to store a certain amount of uranium gas which would be monitored by UN agencies, and Iran would commit to exporting most of it's enriched uranium. (The Washington Post, February 4, 2015)
Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif made it clear in early February that he was not in favor of another extension to the negotiations, and that this may be the last chance for diplomatic negotiations to work. Zarif claimed that “I do not believe another extension is in the interests of anybody, as I did not believe this extension was either necessary or useful,” and said that the negotiators needed to “seize this opportunity,” emphasizing that “it may not be repeated.” In a seperate interview on February 8, Secretary of State Kerry claimed that it would be “impossible” for another extension to the negotiations to be put in place if no solution is reached this time around. (The New York Times, February 9, 2015)
Speaking at a ceremony commemorating Space Technology Day in Iran on February 17, 2015, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the claim that the Iranians had made “highly important progress in the nuclear field” in the pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy. Rouhani complained however that “the negotiations receive so much attraction and hue and cry that they overshadow these activities,” but despite this, the Iranian nuclear program is “running at a higher speed” according to Rouhani. He rebuked the United States attempts to sanction them and derail their nuclear program, stating that “we don’t and will not take permission from anyone to make progress in science and knowledge.” (Fars News, February 17, 2015)
A report prepared by the IAEA and released by Reuters on February 19, 2015, claimed that Iran was and still is stalling the United Nations nuclear inquiry and deliberately complicating efforts to reach a deal with the P5+1. Included in the report was evidence that Iran was continuing to refuse cooperation with two aspects of the long-running nuclear investigation; aspects that Iran committed to have completed by August 2014. In the report, IAEA officials stated that “Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures,” referring to the scope of Iranian explosive tests and other allegations. A new round of talks between Iranian and U.S. officials began on February 20, 2015. (Reuters, February 20, 2015)
Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the people concerned about a bad deal and it's impact on February 23, 2015, when he stated that “Anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, ‘Well, we don’t like the deal,’ or this or that, doesn’t know what the deal is... There is no deal yet. And I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce.” (New York Times, February 23, 2015)
The National Coalition of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an Iranian dissident group with ties to the nuclear program who had in the past reported claims of hidden nuclear sites, presented evidence in late February 2015 that the Iranians had been hiding an undisclosed uranium enrichment facility under the suburbs of Tehran since 2008. The NCRI claimed that the site, known as "Lavizan-3," had been used for the past number of years for enrichment with advanced IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuge machines. Accusations by the NCRI are taken seriously, since in the early 2000's NCRI claims assisted in exposing the now public Natanz uranium enrichment facility and Arak heavy water facility. The NCRI has officials working in the Iranian government and with the nuclear program within their ranks, and released their discovery of the hidden site following years of intelligence gathering. (The Washington Times, February 24, 2015)
Legislation titled the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” was introduced into the Senate on February 27, 2015, by Senators Corker, Menendez, Graham, and Kaine. The bill would require the text of any agreement reached between the U.S. and Iran to be submitted for Congressional review, and would prohibit the lifting of Iranian sanctions during the given 60 day congressional review period. President Obama threatened to veto the legislation. To read Senator Corker's response to Obama's threat of a veto, click here. A letter penned by the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce was circulated among his colleagues following the introduction of this legislation, stressing the need for congressional involvement in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. In the letter, Royce states that his peers are “prepared to evaluate any agreement to determine its long-term impact on the United States and our allies.” To read the full letter, click here. (The Hill, March 2, 2015)
The IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stated on March 2, 2015, that Iran had recently slowed their pace of cooperation with the IAEA and P5+1, raising concerns that a deal may not be reached by the end of March. According to the IAEA Iran had still not implemented two sets of transparency measures that they were required to have implemented by August 2014. (Reuters, March 2, 2015)
Information was leaked in early March that during negotiations the U.S. was only pushing for Iranian nuclear activity to be halted for the next ten years. The emerging agreement was lambasted by critics, claiming that after the ten year period we would be back in the same situation, in a similar political climate, without any significant changes. Two days after this information was leaked, Iranian negotiator Mohammed Javad Zarif stated that this ten year freeze on nuclear operations was “unacceptable,” but stated that the negotiations would continue.
Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015 was met with a mixed reaction. The Prime Minister of Israel delivered an impassioned address in which he made his case against an agreement with Iran that would leave them with a breakout time of only one year, and thousands of operational centrifuges in order to make nuclear materials. The deal taking shape through negotiations was very dangerous for Israel according to Netanyahu, who stated that the deal being considered at the time “Doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb. It paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” The Prime Minister was heavily critical of the unfolding deal between the P5+1 and Iran, but according to President Barack Obama, Netanyahu did not provide any alternative solutions to come to a nuclear agreement. Many people were unhappy with Netanyahu coming to address Congress because they viewed the speech as a political stunt, taking place so close to Israeli elections. While speaking to Congress Netanyahu addressed these concerns, stating that “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sad that she was “near tears” during the speech, because she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States,” and “the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.” (The New York Times, March 4, 2015)
While the Israeli Prime Minister was attempting to convince Congress not to approve a bad deal that would leave a nuclear capable Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif met in Switzerland to continue negotiations to reach a final agreement. When asked if an agreement was close, Zarif stated on March 3 that “We'll try, that's why we are here. The only way to move forward is through negotiations.” Speaking about the negotiations, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier confidently said that “In ten years of negotiations, we never achieved as much progress as we have made this year.” (Reuters, March 3, 2015)
Approaching the last weeks until the deal deadline, on March 3, the United States negotiating team laid out their “bottom lines,” or areas where the United States was not willing to budge (Yahoo News, March 4, 2015). These bottom lines include that:
- Any deal struck should provide for a minimum breakout time of one year and freeze Iranian nuclear activities for at least ten years
- Iran should not produce weapons-grade plutonium at the Arak reactor
- Iran should not use the Fordo nuclear plant to enrich uranium (leaving only the Natanz plant for uranium enrichment)
- Iran should reduce their number of operating centrifuges significantly
- Iran should agree to full inspections of nuclear and production facilities, as well as mines and mills
- Under the agreement sanctions against Iran must be phased out over time
The second to last round of negotiations wrapped up in Gevena, Switzerland on March 4, 2015. China's envoy to the P5+1 negotiations with Iran stated later that day that the negotiations could be “moving into the final stage.” John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia the next day for a brief visit to reassure the Arab allies of the United States that the U.S. will work with them to counter Iranian influence in the region whether or not a nuclear accord is reached by the March 17 deadline. While in Saudi Arabia, Kerry facilitated talks between the Foreign Ministers of members of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Riyadh Air Base. The final round of talks are set to begin on March 15, 2015. (The Washington Post, March 5, 2015)
A group of fourty-seven Republicans gave the Iranian leadership a lesson in balance of power principles on March 5, 2015, informing them in a letter that any agreement struck without Congressional approval is simply an executive agreement which could be easily overturned by the next U.S. President. 2016 Republican Presidential candidate hopefuls Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all signed on to the letter. Not only was the letter meant to discourage the Iranian regime from signing the current deal, it was also meant to encourage President Barack Obama to consider Congressional advice if a deal is to be reached. Experts and Washington insiders said that this letter sent by Congressional Republicans to Iran in an attempt to thwart a nuclear agreement was unprecedented, with the only somewhat similar examples coming 40 years prior during the Nixon and Carter administrations. To read the full text of the letter, click here. (Politico, March 9, 2015)
Vice President Joe Biden delivered scathing criticism to the authors of the letter in response, stating that the act severely undercut presidential authority and was “beneath the dignity” of the Senate. Biden said that “In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary—that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them.” President Obama claimed that the signatories to the letter were effectively aligning themselves with the Iranian hard-line conservatives who are vehemently opposed to a nuclear deal. European leaders including German Foreign Minister Steinmeier, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond voiced their opposition to the letter as well. (Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2015)
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif issued a response to the letter in which he offered to mediate talks between Congress and Obama, and called the letter “unprecedented and undiplomatic.” Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei posted on social media that the letter was indicative of a “collapse in ethics” of American politics. (Politico, March 12, 2015)
According to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released in March 2015, Americans were very skeptical as to whether the negotiations will actually limit Iran's ability to produce nuclear materials. The poll found that 24% of Americans think that the negotiations will make a difference in preventing Iran from eventually obtaining nuclear weapons material, and 74% think they will not make a difference. (Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2015)
On March 12, 2015, President Barack Obama sent Congress a letter stating that he was extending the March 1995 declaration of a national emergency with respect to Iran. In the letter the President expressed hopefulness, stating that, "This marks the first time in a decade that Iran has agreed to take [...] specific actions that stop the advance and roll back key elements of its nuclear program." Despite this, he also addressed his concerns that "the crisis between the United States and Iran resulting from certain actions and policies of the Government of Iran has not been resolved," and that "certain actions and policies of the Government of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States." Citing these reasons, President Obama sent notice to the Federal Register in March 2015 to extended the declaration of a national emergency with respect to Iran for another year. To read the full text of the letter, Click here. (The White House, March 12, 2015)
Seperate from nuclear negotiations, the five permanent UN Security Council members -Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S.- plus representatives Germany and Iran begun talks in mid March aimed at lifting UN sanctions on Iran if a nuclear agreement is in fact reached. These talks were confirmed by an anonymous American official. Although a deal struck between Iran and the P5+1 would be monumental, it would not be legally binding and could be edited or thrown out by a future U.S. President or Congress. A Security Council resolution however would be completely legally binding, and would make it significantly harder for a deal to fall apart. These talks are in response to the Republican invitation of Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress in early March, and the condescending letter written by 47 Republican U.S. Senators to the leadership of Iran, which has garnered significant international criticism. Officials close to the Security Council talks said that a UN resolution would help protect any nuclear deal from potential sabotages from Republicans in the U.S. Congress. If these international sanctions are lifted on Iran's oil export limit, Iran could be producing an additional 800,000 barrels of oil per day within one year.
Kerry and Zarif held five hours of negotiations on Monday, March 16 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Following the meeting, Zarif and the Iranian delegation went to Brussels to meet with European Foreign Ministers, and an anonymous American source unsurprisingly stated that it was not clear whether a deal would be reached by the upcoming deadline. During the talks Zarif addressed the letter written during the previous week by 47 Republican U.S. Senators to Iran's leadership, calling it “ill-timed and ill-advised.”(Reuters, March 16, 2015)
Coming into the final countdown before the deal deadline at the end of March 2015, there were still quite a few issues and differences between the Iranians and the P5+1. Obstacles still troubling negotiators in the weeks leading up to the deadline included: when U.N. sanctions would be lifted, how inspections would be conducted, and how many centrifuges Iran would be allowed to keep operational. Multiple new issues also surfaced during the final weeks of the negotiations. Iranian officials went back on their earlier words that the Fordo facility would be converted into one solely for scientific research, and demanded that it remain operational with centrifuges capable of producing uranium. Iran insisted that they be able to retain the Arak heavy water reactor during the final weeks of negotiations as well, which could provide them an alternate route to a nuclear weapon.
On the heels of the embarassing letter written by 47 Republican U.S. Senators, U.S. and European lawmakers began circulating a letter on March 17, asserting that a “bad deal” with Iran that only freezes it's program for ten years would surely result in more sanctions placed on the Islamic Republic. The letter was first presented to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, after being signed by Parliamentarians from France, Britain, and Germany. The letter stresses that “A nuclear Iran is an imminent threat not only to the U.S. but also to Europe, the Middle East and to the world at large. Bearing in mind Iran’s history, we remain skeptical of the Iranian regime’s sincerity and commitment to reach an agreement. We believe Iran must realize that any failure to negotiate an acceptable deal, one that prevents a nuclear armed Iran, will result without fail in tougher sanctions than ever.” To read the full text of the letter, click here.
Senators Bob Corker and Robert Menendez drafted a bill coming into the final phase of the negotiations that would give congress the overall authority to accept or reject any nuclear deal with Iran. As the bill circulated in mid-March, senior Obama Administration officials including President Obama himself took to the Senate offices to lobby against the bill, advising Democrat and Republican Senators alike not to sign the bill, and telling Democrats to notify the White House if they are planning to sign. The President wanted to cut off any Democratic support for the bill before it picked up steam in order to prevent a veto-proof majority from forming in support of the bill. The administration officials attempted to persuade Senators to let the negotiations finish and not to act too soon and destroy what the negotiators had worked so hard for. In addition to these in person meetings, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough sternly warned lawmakers in a letter not to interfere with ongoing negotiations.
A letter from a bipartisan group of 360 U.S. lawmakers was presented to President Obama on March 19, 2015, advising him against bypassing Congress in the event of an Iran deal, and stipulating the need for Congressional approval of any agreement. Speaking about the letter, Representative Eliot Engel from New York stated at a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting that “There really cannot be any marginalization of Congress. Congress really needs to play a very active and vital role in this whole process, and any attempts to sidestep Congress will be resisted.” The authors and signatories of the letter asserted that “Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent sanctions relief from Congressionally-mandated sanctions would require new legislation.”(PressTV, March 19, 2015)
President Obama used the pretense of a video wishing Iranian citizens a happy Nowruz (Iranian New Year) to make his case to Iranian youth that their leaders should accept the nuclear deal on the table with the P5+1. After mentioning the Nowruz celebration held at the White House, Obama wasted no time attempting to convince young Iranians that it is in their best interests for their government to sign the nuclear accord. Obama juxtaposed Iran's current path of isolation and hardship with the path of cultural exchanges, travel, economic opportunity, and inclusion that they could have if their government committed to abandon pursuit of nuclear weapons. The video message from the President was disseminated via YouTube with a Persian title and subtitles. (New York Times, March 20, 2015)
Israeli officials worried about a bad deal with Iran took their message to France on March 23, 2015, where they spoke to French National Security Advisor Jacques Audibert and the French nuclear negotiating team about the potential implications of a deal that leaves Iran on the path to a nuclear weapon. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz stated during an interview in France that the Israelis "think it’s going to be a bad, insufficient deal." The Israelis then took their message to London, where they met with the British negotiating team before the negotiations restarted on Thursday, March 26. (New York Times, March 23, 2015)
After intercepting communications between Israeli officials containing information that could have only come from access to the confidential nuclear talks, the United States announced in March 2015 that it believed Israeli officials had spied on the negotiations. In order to build a case against the emerging Iran deal, Netanyahu's government allegedly penetrated the negotiations and passed information on to U.S. lawmakers, hoping to drain support from the deal. Israeli officials denied the spying accusations and maintained that they received the confidential information through other means such as close surveilance of Iranian and European leaders outside of the negotiations. This incident further strained the U.S.-Israel relationship, but according to an official close to the negotiations the U.S. should not be surprised, as they helped the Israelis build an advanced system to listen in on high-level Iranian communications.
IAEA Director Yukiya Amano stated at a press conference on March 23, 2015, that the IAEA "are still not in a position to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful purpose." (Yahoo News, March 24, 2015)
House Speaker John Boehner made waves earlier in 2015 when he extended an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress about Iran without consulting with the White House beforehand. In March 2015 he announced that he was going to be leading a team of lawmakers to Israel at the end of March, to coincide with the nuclear deal deadline. Boehner's aides asserted that the trip was planned prior to Israel's 2015 election, which saw Benjamin Netanyahu win a historic fourth term as Prime Minister.
With the deadline for a nuclear agreement less than one week away, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stated in an interview on March 24 that out of a dozen inquiries into the potential military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranian government had officially provided the answers to only one of them.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi reached out to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif via phone call on March 24, urging him to sign a nuclear deal with the P5+1 that would curb Iran's nuclear program. "The Iran nuclear talks have reached the final sprint in the marathon," Wang Yi told Zarif, stating that a nuclear agreement is "the trend of the times and the will of the people." (Reuters, March 24, 2015)
In March 2015, 40 Iranian shipping firms and an Iranian bank were placed back on a list of sanctioned groups by the European Union, after a European court removed them from the lists in January. The groups were originally sanctioned because it was believed that they were associated with the blacklisted Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). In January 2015 however, the General Court of the European Union ruled that these sanctions be lifted due to insufficient evidence that IRISL was supporting any aspect of Iran's nuclear program. The sanctions were put back in place in later March, after a letter was sent to the lawyer representing the shipping firms stating that the companies were being relisted due to being owned or controlled by IRISL and/or for providing economic or material support to IRISL. (The Daily Star, March 24, 2015)
Reports coming out during the final week of negotiations revealed that the United States was willing to be flexible as far as the format for an agreement goes. Working to get a written framework for cooperation done by the end of March and a full agreement done by the end of June, officials involved claimed that they "do not know what form this [deal] will take." The Iranian negotiating team hinted that they would be open to a "loose" deal in the form of a statement or political declaration if a more permanent written solution could not be produced. The United States government expressed skepticism at this, prefering a firm, written agreement that Iran could not misrepresent. As March 30 approached, U.S. and French negotiators confirmed that the deadline for a full comprehensive deal was June 30, and there was no reason to rush into an incomplete deal by the end of March. John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif continued negotiations on Thursday, March 26, in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In a unanimous vote on March 26, 2015, the U.S. Senate approved a non-binding measure that would make it easier to re-impose sanctions on Iran if they were to violate an agreed-to nuclear deal. The amendment was attached to a budget bill and sponsored by Senator Mark Kirk. The amendment establishes a fund to cover the cost of imposing sanctions on Tehran in the event that they violate either the current interim agreement or the potential future more permanent agreement.
The Iranian negotiating team demanded in March 27, 2015, that as a part of any agreement international sanctions should be lifted immediately, instead of gradually as the P5+1 had been pushing for.
On March 29, 2015, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters that "The export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our program, and we do not intend sending them abroad," contradicting earlier reports that Iran would be willing to ship part of it's uranium stockpile to Russia. In November 2014 the Iranian negotiatiors tentatively agreed to ship part of their stockpile of uranium to Russia, where it would be processed and converted into specialized fuel rods that cannot be weaponized. This announcement caused another point of contention between Iran and the P5+1 during the final week of negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers on March 29 that the emerging nuclear deal with Iran “bears out all of our fears, and even more than that.”