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The Iran nuclear talks: a very simple guide

It becomes much easier to understand the international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program when you see that each of the issues falls into one (or more) of three overlapping categories: things that are crucial for stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, things that are less important but are just really hard to resolve, and things that mostly matter for appeasing domestic politics in Washington and Tehran.

Those distinctions also help explain why it's been so hard to reach a deal, even though theoretically everyone agrees on the broad concept: that Iran will get relief from international economic sanctions in exchange for accepting limits on its nuclear program meant to keep it from ever developing a nuclear weapon.

Here, then, is a super-simple guide to the eight most fundamental issues under discussion, where the negotiating teams stand on each, and why it matters.

1) When do you lift sanctions on Iran?

An Iranian grocery owner at his store in Tehran (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty)

An Iranian grocery owner at his store in Tehran. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty)

What the issue is: The United Nations Security Council, European Union, United States, and others all have economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program. They will agree to lift sanctions in exchange for Iran accepting the curbs and limitations to its program. But how do you time that exchange? Do they lift the sanctions first, and then Iran will follow through on its commitments? Or should Iran prove itself by holding to the terms, and then the world will gradually lift sanctions?

How they disagree: The US and others want Iran to first prove it will stick to its end of the deal, then gradually lift sanctions over time. They worry that if they lift all or most sanctions right away, Iran will have little incentive to follow through on its promises. Iran demands that all sanctions be lifted right away: they say they badly need economic relief, and should not be punished with years of further sanctions while they are in fact complying.

Why it matters: This issue is perhaps the best illustration of what makes a deal so hard. Everyone agrees that in the long-term, the sanctions will come off if Iran cooperates. The disagreement is, most fundamentally, that neither side trusts the other enough.

The US and others worry that Iran will cheat on its promises — it has before — and that it will be too difficult to re-impose sanctions if Iran breaks its word. Iran, meanwhile, worries that the US is bent on the Islamic Republic's destruction and will not actually lift sanctions if Tehran gives up aspects of its nuclear program. Both sides fear being cheated, so both sides want their end first. But that's not possible; someone has to go second.

2) How do you enforce the deal?

President Obama speaks to the UN Security Council in 2014 (Spencer Platt/Getty)

President Obama speaks to the UN Security Council in 2014. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

What the issue is: The question here is pretty straightforward: if Iran cheats, for example by building a secret nuclear facility somewhere, as it has in the past, then how do you punish it? The idea is that the punishment should be clear and severe enough that Iran never actually cheats at all, because it believes sticking to the deal is its best choice. If the punishment is too light, or is not enforced strictly enough, then Iran could decide it's within its interests to risk cheating.

How they disagree: There is actually very little discussion on this very important issue, because that is unfortunately just not how international agreements work. "These treaties never really have an enforcement mechanism, which is, from a legal perspective, kind of weird and kind of a bummer, but totally understandable in a world of states that jealously guard their sovereignty," nuclear proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis told me.

However, there is one way the US and others talk about enforcement: how to re-impose sanctions on Iran if Iran breaks its end of the deal. The US worries a lot about this, since it was really hard to get Russia and China to agree to the super-punishing United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, for example. So the US wants to put something in the agreement saying that UNSC sanctions will "snap back" automatically if Iran breaks its word. Russia opposes this, and it's unlikely the US will get it.

Why it matters: From the US perspective, there is a worst-case scenario in which Iran cheats on its commitments but the US is unable to get Russia and China (and perhaps other Asian or even European countries) to reinstitute sanctions, maybe because those countries don't want to, or maybe because they partly fault the US. This would mean Iran would get relief from sanctions and illegal nuclear advancement, and the US would lose leverage on Iran. So the US wants to make the enforcement mechanisms as scary as possible. That's part of why President Obama has in the past threatened that he would take unilateral military action to stop Iran from getting a bomb, though this will not be mentioned in the deal itself.

3) How invasive will nuclear inspections be?

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014 (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014. (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

What the issue is: This is perhaps the most important issue for keeping Iran from building a nuclear bomb. Some level of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be a part of any deal, especially of Iran's publicly declared nuclear sites, of its uranium stockpile, and of its centrifuges. But there are degrees. Lewis pointed out, for example, that it would be very useful to have inspectors at Iran's centrifuge workshops, to make sure Iran is not producing off-the-books centrifuges that it could divert to a new secret facility. Will inspectors look over information on new mining projects to make sure Iran isn't digging for new uranium it could divert? And so on.

Where they disagree: This has not actually been a hugely divisive issue so far, as best as I can tell from press reports. This is perhaps because everyone agrees there will some inspections, so the questions come down to matters of degree, and to boring technical details like what sorts of databases on dual-use technology (products that could be used for a nuclear program or for peaceful purposes) we have. There's no big symbolic issue to get stuck on, or to stir up trouble in Tehran and Washington.

Why it matters: If Iran is going to build a nuclear weapon, it's almost certainly going to try do it in secret. "That's why I'm much more worried about covert sites," Lewis says. "Because if you're Iran, you wanna do what Pakistan did, which is to get a whole bunch of fissile material [prepared in secret]." Then, one day, the US president would wake up to find that Iran already had an entire arsenal's worth, and it would be too late to do anything about it. This makes it crucially important that the world inspectors be so up in Iran's business that no only is the country unable to develop a nuclear bomb in secret, but it's less likely to try because it doesn't think it could get away with it.

4) How much research and development will Iran be allowed to do?

Iran's then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks over centrifuges at the nuclear facility at Natanz (Photo by the Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty)

Iran's then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks over centrifuges at the nuclear facility at Natanz in 2008. (Photo by the Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty)

What the issue is: Would Iranian nuclear scientists be allowed to conduct research and development on nuclear issues? What sort of research is allowed and isn't? Is there a time frame in which research is or is not allowed?

Where the disagreement is: It's partly over what kinds of research Iran can do. For example, Iran would like to upgrade its very old centrifuges — something that could multiply their enrichment power by a factor of several — but the US insists that this not be allowed. The disagreement is also over timelines. The US is pushing for the entire deal to last 15 years, and for the strictest R&D restrictions to cover those first 10 years. The Iranians would like shorter timelines.

Why it matters: "If I were a really clever Iranian negotiator," Lewis said, "I'd argue that 1,500 centrifuges is actually enough, but I'd insist on keeping R&D going. And so then Iran would have fewer centrifuges, but they'd be so much more powerful." If Iran can develop higher-tech centrifuges, that would enhance its ability to sprint to developing a bomb. And should Iran decide to try to develop another secret nuclear site somewhere, it potentially would be able to fill it with more advanced centrifuges.

5) How many centrifuges can Iran have?

Ahmadinejad gestures toward a model of Iran's third-generation centrifuge in 2010 (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty)

Ahmadinejad gestures toward a model of Iran's third-generation centrifuge in 2010. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty)

What the issue is: Centrifuges are pieces of equipment you use to turn raw uranium into low-enriched uranium (for fuel or other peaceful purposes) or to turn low-enriched uranium into high-enriched uranium (for a nuclear bomb). So it would seem like the fewer centrifuges that Iran has, the harder it would be for them to develop a nuclear bomb. Iran currently has 20,000 centrifuges; the proposal you currently hear being discussed is to allow them 6,000 centrifuges.

How they disagree: The Americans are pushing hard for the lowest number of centrifuges possible. That is for political reasons: members of Congress are demanding to cut Iran's centrifuge count, and so is Israel. The US needs to deliver on this to appease those constituencies and "prove" it has demonstrably reduced Iran's nuclear program. The Iranians, meanwhile, are doing the same in reverse: Iranian leaders can't admit to the powerful hard-liners in Tehran that they've accepted debilitating cuts to the program, so they need to preserve lots of centrifuges.

Why it matters: This issue is a total red herring, and shows how politics are pushing both sides to demand something that doesn't actually matter that much. If Iran wants to build a nuclear bomb, it will almost certainly do it in secret by using centrifuges we don't know about in a facility we don't know about. And Iran's centrifuges are shoddy, decades-old relics. Even if Iran does decide one day to throw out inspectors and build a bomb in the full light of day, the number of centrifuges they have will be much less important than the quality of those centrifuges; in other words, their ability to upgrade centrifuges is much more important.

6) What to do with Iran's stockpile of uranium?

Iranian technicians load fuel into the nuclear reactor at Bushehr (IIPA via Getty)

Iranian technicians load fuel into the nuclear reactor at Bushehr. (IIPA via Getty)

What the issue is: Iran has a stockpile of low-enriched uranium (for fuel or other peaceful purposes), and it is going to continue making more of it. Because that low-enriched uranium could be fed back into centrifuges and gradually made into highly enriched uranium (for a nuclear bomb), the US and others do not want Iran to just have that stockpile laying around. The question is what to do with the stockpile.

How they disagree: The US wants Iran to ship much of its nuclear stockpile off to Russia, which would convert it to fuel rods to ship back to Iran (fuel rods can be used to power a nuclear plant, but are extremely difficult to convert for use in a bomb). Iran wants to keep the stockpile on its soil, diluting the uranium down at home.

Why it matters: As with the number of centrifuges, this is sort of a red herring. Iran's nuclear stockpile, whatever it does with it, will be under close monitoring and regular international inspections. If Iran decides to build a nuclear bomb, it will almost certainly use uranium that is off the books, rather than pulling from its stockpile. But, as with the centrifuges, the issue has taken on political importance in Washington and Tehran. The American negotiators want to demonstrate curbs to Iran's nuclear program, even if they're only symbolic. The Iranians reject the shipping-to-Russia proposal in part because it would be a humiliation and abridgment of Iranian sovereignty; that's "just" symbolism, but it's the sort of thing Iranian hard-liners could use to try to torpedo a deal.

7) What is Iran's "breakout time" to make a nuclear bomb?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a diagram of a bomb to demonstrate Iran's nuclear program at the 2012 UN General Assembly (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a diagram of a bomb to demonstrate Iran's nuclear program at the 2012 UN General Assembly. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty)

What the issue is: The "breakout time" is how long it would take Iran to build a nuclear bomb, if one day its leaders woke up and decided to do that. The Americans want that to be longer, so that Iran will be further from a bomb. The Iranians want it to be shorter, because it means fewer curbs on their program.

Where they disagree: The breakout time is not actually an issue that is being explicitly negotiated, partly because the Iranians do not acknowledge they might want a nuclear bomb one day. So the disagreements play out in things like the number of centrifuges and the nuclear stockpile (more centrifuges and a larger stockpile would make it easier for Iran to build a bomb, meaning a shorter breakout time).

Why it matters: Breakout time is something the Americans focus on a lot, driven by congressional Republicans and hawkish Democrats, as well as by Israel, who often demand a breakout time of a year or more. But as Jeffrey Lewis explained, breakout time does not actually matter all that much, for three reasons.

First of all, focusing on breakout time assumes that Iran would use its officially declared centrifuges and uranium to build a bomb, when in fact it would almost certainly use covert material not regulated by the deal. Second, if the US extends breakout time from, say, six months to nine months, it's not at all clear what function those extra three months would serve. Six months could be plenty of time to do whatever needed to be done. And, third, there's very little reason to think that Iranian leaders would decide whether to build a nuclear weapon based on moving the breakout time a few weeks in one direction or another.

8) Can Iran keep using its hardened nuclear facilities?

Satellite imagery of Iran's nuclear enrichment facility at Fordow (DigitalGlobe/ISIS via Getty)

Satellite imagery of Iran's nuclear enrichment facility at Fordow. (DigitalGlobe/ISIS via Getty)

What the issue is: Iran had developed multiple secret nuclear facilities — for example its site near the city of Natanz — which have since been discovered. Some of these are "hardened," meaning they have thick, reinforced walls meant to protect from attack. Can Iran keep using them?

Where they disagree: Iran would like to keep using some of the sites, specifically the one at Natanz. The US and others, seeing such facilities as components of Iran's clandestine nuclear program, want to shut them down. This issue is largely symbolic: because the sites are now publicly declared and will be monitored as part of any deal, their value (and threat) as covert facilities is gone. And according to Lewis, "Natanz is not big enough, even with 50,000 centrifuges, to be a useful plant, given the centrifuges they have."

Why it matters: This is another good example of a fight that is largely about both teams of negotiators trying to accommodate domestic politics back home. The American negotiators think they have a better chance of getting Congress to acquiesce (to at least not kill the deal by passing new sanctions) if they can say, "Look, we got them to shut down Natanz!" The Iranian negotiators, meanwhile, think they have a better chance of appeasing hard-liners in Tehran if they can say, "Look, we will continue using Natanz!" But this issue, like others, is zero-sum; someone has to lose face.