Iran leader rejects P5+1 timeline for nuclear deal

Jessie Owen Payne | February 11, 2015

When the world powers of the P5+1 again extended the Iranian nuclear program interim agreement last November, the Obama Administration laid out a new timeline that imposed a March deadline for a political agreement and a June deadline for a technical agreement.

When the White House later battled Congress over legislation that would impose economic pressure on Iran if the Iranians refuse to roll back their nuclear program, they specifically put pressure on lawmakers to wait at least until the March deadline before acting.

In the midst of these negotiations, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke to his country’s Air Force personnel on Feb. 8 and rejected the idea of a political framework. He also set new conditions for the structure of a deal by rejecting phased sanctions relief.

We agree with the progress in the work our statesmen have done and they are truly making efforts, sparing no time and doing hard work. We will agree if it leads to a good deal, too. I will agree and am sure that the Iranian nation will agree and will not be against a deal which preserves its glory, honor and interests. However, these features must be considered without a doubt. The glory and honor of the Iranian nation and the development of the Iranian nation, which is an important issue, must be preserved. The Iranian nation is not used to listening to the tyranny of the enemies and surrendering to bribery and oppression no matter who the other side may be, even if it is America.

Khamenei’s speech is being reported in opposite ways by Iranian and Western media. While Iran’s PressTV framed Khamenei’s statement as his rejection of “any deal that contradicts national interests,” The New York Times’ headline read, “Iran presses for progress in nuclear talks” and Reuters indicated that Khamenei would accept a fair nuclear compromise.

At stake are the process (the technicalities of the next few months, including the scheduling of talks and the deadlines for the various agreements) and substance (what will be acceptable to each party regarding the deal’s structure, the centrifuge capacity, plutonium-production capability and more) of this deal.

In terms of the process, the nations of the West have accepted the deadlines laid out last November. Regarding substance, the West will trade phased sanctions relief for Iran’s meeting confidence-building benchmarks.

But Khamenei’s Feb. 8 speech explicitly rejected both of these Western views. On the idea of process, he rejected a political agreement.

I do not favor remarks that we should agree on some principles and later on details. I dislike it when they say that there should be a deal on general principles at one stage and then we can talk about details. Given our experience with the other side, they will use this as a tool for repeatedly making excuses regarding details. If they want a deal, they should cover both generalities and details in a single session, instead of leaving details for later and separating generalities which are vague and leave room for different interpretations. This is not logical.

Regarding substance, Khamenei rejected a phased lifting of sanctions:

[T]hese are all meant for taking away the weapon of sanctions from the hands of the enemy. It is good if they can do this. However, the sanctions must literally be taken away from the hands of the enemy. The sanctions must be lifted. This kind of a deal [is favored]. Otherwise, if they achieve no success in this regard, the Iranian nation, statesmen, the honorable government and others have numerous ways and they must certainly take this path in order to nullify the weapon of sanctions.

While Khamenei did press for “progress,” in actuality, he rejected the United States’ understanding of how talks should move forward. While he verbally embraced a “fair deal,” he rejected the United States’ understanding of how such a deal should be structured.

When asked for clarification about the March deadline after Khamenei’s comments, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the date is still a goal of the department, but added, “We’ve never called it a deadline. We’ve called it a goal of when we want to achieve the political framework.” In reality, State Department Press Office Director Jeff Rathke, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz and Psaki herself all recently referred to the March date as a deadline.

Perceptions that the administration is again backsliding in response to Iranian intransigence are likely to fuel renewed calls for Congressional oversight.

Going forward, lawmakers will be watching the Obama Administration closely; any creative reinterpretations of past statements would get folded into the skeptics’ narrative that the White House has spent the last year ceding to Iranian red lines.