Give the Iranian regime credit for creativity. In the midst of extensive nuclear negotiations with the West, officials in Tehran have apparently hit upon a new way to play for time.
On the heels of the most recent — and largely fruitless — round of consultations in Vienna between Tehran and the P5+1 (the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany), Iran's Atomic Energy Organization has proffered a full tally of the country's nuclear project. In what is ostensibly intended as a confidence-building measure, IAEO spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi has confirmed that the Islamic Republic is preparing a "comprehensive document" detailing the extent of its quarter-century-old nuclear effort. But the product won't come quickly; "This is time-consuming, as we need to coordinate with other government bodies, but we hope to have it finished in eight months," Kamalvandi has maintained.
The timing is telling. The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) — the six-month interim nuclear deal inked between Iran and the P5+1 powers last fall, which formally entered into force back in January — is set to expire this summer. Speculation regarding next steps is now running high within the Washington Beltway, with many in Congress urging the White House to reapply significant economic pressure on the Iranian regime once the initial term of the JPA has ended, provided a lasting deal to curb Iranian capabilities isn't reached by then.
That's an outcome Tehran is clearly hoping to avoid, which is why its planned "comprehensive" assessment is destined to be a drawn-out affair. If the timeline proffered by Kamalvandi is to be believed, Iran won't provide key data related to its nuclear effort until early 2015 — or perhaps even later. The United States and its allies would be expected to wait at least that long to get a full picture of Iran's nuclear endeavor, and to determine conclusively whether the Iranian regime is actually in compliance with Western demands, before reverting back to robust sanctions.
That's hardly an accident. For years, the Iranian regime has pursued a consistent diplomatic strategy aimed at buying time for its nuclear effort. Repeated rounds of inconclusive international negotiations over the past decade succeeded in delaying the application of serious economic and political pressure from Europe and the United Nations. Obfuscation and concealment did the rest, hiding the full scope of Iran's nuclear plans from the International Atomic Energy Agency and increasingly worried Western powers.
Not so now. Over the past two years, serious economic pressure by the United States and its allies succeeded in bringing the Islamic Republic to the nuclear negotiating table. But the Iranian government has still given no indication that it is willing to give up its nuclear development, which officials in Tehran continue to call an "inalienable" right.
The Iranians clearly want keep the pressure off, and that requires keeping the West talking. Already, the interim nuclear deal hammered out in Geneva has proven a boon to Iran's ailing economy, providing the regime in Tehran with much-needed relief from Western sanctions and new opportunities for commerce with eager foreign companies. Indeed, it's already clear that the tactical loosening of U.S. and European sanctions to date has spurred something of an economic recovery in Iran — albeit one that is both modest and reversible, at least for now. Clearly, however, the longer these trends continue, the healthier the Iranian regime will become.
That dovetails with Iran's core interest of buying time as a way of strengthening its economy and adding permanence to its nuclear effort. The only thing that has changed, in other words, is that officials in Tehran now believe the best way to do so is through disclosure, rather than concealment.