On 24 November 2014, the P5+1 (the UK, US, Germany, France, Russia and China, facilitated by the EU) confirmed that the 'Geneva Agreement' – the limited sanctions relief that was agreed in November 2013 and implemented in January 2014 – will be extended for a further seven months whilst negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme continue.
The Joint Plan of Action (JPoA), suspending certain sanctions in exchange for Iran rolling back aspects of its nuclear programme, was implemented with effect from Monday 20 January 2014 for an initial period of 6 months. The sanctions relief, which was described at the time as "limited, temporary and reversible", is explained in more detail in our earlier e-bulletin and was later extended to 24 November 2014, whilst negotiations continued (see our e-bulletin). At the time the Geneva Agreement was originally entered into, the US made clear in statements to the press that the sanctions relief was not intended to represent a 'new status quo' but, rather, a step in the negotiations, which would either lead to a comprehensive solution or would fall away – to be replaced by even more stringent sanctions measures.
As 24 November approached, there was therefore intense interest in whether the negotiations would lead to further, more tangible, relief, of a type which would permit broader engagement with Iran – or conversely whether there would be a failure of the negotiations which could trigger further sanctions. Ten rounds of negotiations and numerous meetings have taken place during the past months, with a view to reaching a comprehensive solution.
In the event, the sanctions relief has been rolled forward to allow for further negotiations until 30 June 2015. A Joint Statement by EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirms that "some ideas have been developed" but that "more work is required to assess and finalise them as appropriate"; the parties "remain convinced that...there is a credible path through which a comprehensive solution can be reached". The intention is to reach an outline agreement within four months, and if necessary use the remaining time to finalise technical and drafting work.
In a statement to the UK Parliament, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that whilst the gap had been closed on a number of important issues, "significant differences remain" and there was need for "further movement on some big issues" by Iran, and a need for "flexibility on both sides".
A statement by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry stressed that "we are certainly not going to sit at the negotiating table forever, absent measureable progress", and that if after four months no agreement had been reached "we can revisit how we then want to choose to proceed". At present, however, it was "not the time to get up and walk away".
Reportedly, President Rouhani of Iran faces domestic pressure to take a tough line in negotiations, whilst from the US perspective some factions wish to see the immediate introduction of additional sanctions. In a questions and answers session following his statement, John Kerry was asked whether President Obama would veto any additional sanctions legislation introduced by Congress whilst the negotiations are continuing, but avoided the question on the basis that "it's way too premature to be starting to talk about veto".
Whilst, therefore, significant progress has been made, there remains material uncertainty as to the future of the negotiations and the ability of the negotiating parties to 'sell' any deal to their respective constituencies. Those who have an interest in reengaging with Iran will need to 'watch this space' for some time to come, with the next critical juncture falling at the end of March 2015, the point at which substantive agreement is intended to have been reached.