CBRN Assessment

US Secretary of State suggests Iranian sanctions could be lifted within months

26 September 2013
Iranian president Hassan Rowhani, sits with the Iranian delegation during a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 26 September 2013 at UN headquarters in New York. Source: PA

Key Points

  • Following the election of Iranian president Hassan Rowhani, there appears to be greater willingness in the United States and Iran to reach a deal over Iran's nuclear programme.
  • Despite this apparent increase in political will, decades of mutual mistrust ensures that significant obstacles to a deal remain. Both sides would have to compromise on long-held red lines.
  • Even should a deal be reached, there is no reason to suspect that the US Congress would opt to move to lift sanctions. The process of lifting congressional sanctions traditionally takes years.


US Secretary of State John Kerry's suggestion on 26 September that Iranian compromises over its nuclear programme could result in sanctions being lifted within months appears optimistic given expected congressional opposition.

The much-mooted meeting between US president Barack Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rowhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) summit in New York this week did not happen. However, the momentum behind Rowhani's efforts to improve Iran's engagement with the West continues to grow. Rowhani authored an article in the Washington Post on 19 September titled "Why Iran seeks constructive engagement" and since arriving in New York has appeared on CNN, given an exclusive interview to the Washington Post , and addressed the UNGA summit on 24 September. This charm offensive won plaudits throughout the West, especially given the comparison with Rowhani's firebrand predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This has led to much speculation over the possibility of a deal being reached over Iran's nuclear programme. But concerns remain over whether anything more than just Iran's tone has changed.

Iran's new approach

The importance of Rowhani's more conciliatory tone should not be discounted as it makes the negotiating process less arduous. However, more is certainly required.

The first concrete step was handing responsibility for nuclear negotiations to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif earlier this month. Zarif is respected by senior Western diplomats following his tenure as ambassador to the UN from 2002 to 2007. Moreover, this took responsibility away from the purview of the hardliner-dominated Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

Moreover, Zarif's meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from the other P5+1 states - China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States - on 26 September was the highest level meeting between the US and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They agreed that negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 should resume on 15-16 October in Geneva, Switzerland. Arranging such talks previously took weeks of haggling. Following the meeting, Kerry stated that if Iran co-operates with international monitoring of its nuclear programme, sanctions could be lifted within months.

The election of Rowhani himself has also altered the current political equation in Iran. The widespread criticism of former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in the presidential election, and the public support Rowhani secured by pledging to engage with the West could not be ignored by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Combined with the damaging impact of US, UN, and EU sanctions on the Iranian economy, Khamenei appears to be willing to countenance a deal with the West - a vital development. Rowhani has publicly stated that he has the Supreme Leader's blessing to reach a deal, and Khamenei himself has toned down his anti-US rhetoric, and has called for "heroic flexibility" in negotiations.

How much of a compromise?

Sufficient indicators exist to suspect that Iran's leaders are willing to enter into more serious negotiations with the West in a bid to win sanctions relief. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be willing to compromise sufficiently to reach a deal with the West.

As head of the SNSC in 2003, Rowhani oversaw the temporary suspension of the enrichment of uranium. Nevertheless, such an outcome is highly unlikely now given the subsequent advances to Iran's nuclear programme. An August report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had installed 1,008 advanced IR2m centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant since February. Suspending enrichment after such development would be perceived by Iran's leaders as a humiliating defeat.

However, they might be prepared to countenance suspending the enrichment of uranium to 20%. Uranium enriched by 20% can swiftly be enriched to weapons grade, and this is a key concern for the West. An Iranian offer to cap enrichment to 5% - levels still sufficient for use in power generation plants - would be an important compromise, especially if accompanied by an agreement to ship out its stockpile of 20% uranium or convert it into forms that cannot easily be weaponised. This could involve converting it into metal plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, steps Iran has already partially taken.

Another major concession would be to permit IAEA inspectors to the Parchin Military Research Complex. The IAEA suspects Iran has conducted nuclear weapons research there and accuses the government of seeking to "sanitise" the complex. Iran would also likely have to sign the IAEA's Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement. Under this, IAEA inspectors would be permitted to undertake wider and more intrusive inspections.

The US response

There have been recent indications that the US, or at least the Obama administration, would be willing to compromise somewhat on its stance with Iran. It is likely that they would be willing to permit Iran continuing enrichment - albeit it a limited level - as long as it was under closer international monitoring.

Political will among the executive is one thing, but any meaningful deal must have the backing of Congress. Iran's primary motivation is winning sanctions relief, however, most of the sanctions currently targeting Iran were legislated by Congress. Even a number of Presidential Executive Orders were subsequently written into law by Congress. As such, the US president cannot simply lift them, they must be repealed by Congress. The repealing of such Congressional sanctions is a lengthy procedure, and many intransigent congressional members are unlikely to grant any relief to Iran.

Although sanctions covered by orders such as Executive Order 13622 of July 2012, which covers interactions between "foreign financial institutions" and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), can be lifted simply, this is unlikely to be sufficient for Iran. Obama can announce exemptions to some congressional sanctions, but such waivers are primarily limited to oil purchases. There appear to be insufficient loopholes for other sectors such as banking.


There are sufficient indications to suggest that the United States and Iranian governments are willing to enter into constructive negotiations over reaching a deal on Iran's nuclear programme. Both are likely to compromise to some extent on their previous stances, but given the extent of the mutual mistrust between them, these may prove insufficient. However, conditions are more amenable than at any time over the past decade. Both sides appear to recognise that it could be years before such an opportunity exists again.

Even if both sides agree on the details of a deal, Kerry's assertion that it is possible for sanctions to be lifted within months appears unfeasible. Although those covered by Executive Orders can be lifted swiftly, the majority was imposed by Congress and there is no indication that Congress is willing to repeal them. Even if sufficient willingness existed, congressional sanctions are notoriously slow to be repealed, and progress within the next 12 months would be highly unlikely. Failure to win meaningful sanctions relief would end the prospects of an agreement being reached and adhered to as it would spell an end to Khamenei's support for a deal.

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