Foreign ministers from major powers kicked off a scheduled day of talks aimed at securing the outlines of a nuclear deal with Iran by a midnight deadline. Pictured, Secretary of State John Kerry, left, before the opening of the plenary session at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 31.

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Negotiators meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, are working to meet a deadline on Tuesday — give or take — for a nuclear agreement with Iran aimed at resolving more than a dozen years of friction. Here is the latest state of play:

Is Tuesday the big day or not?

It’s a big day because it’s the target date set by Iran and six world powers for a deal. Everybody’s watching to see if they arrive at an agreement by midnight in Switzerland (or 6p.m. Eastern Daylight Time). They could come up short, and they could also try again tomorrow or next week. More on this later.

What’s the objective here?

The U.S. along with its negotiating partners — Germany, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia — want an agreement that will leave Iran at least a year away from being able to purify enough nuclear fuel to create a bomb. Iran denies that it is pursuing a nuclear weapon and insists its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes, but the West has long suspected that Iran has harbored nuclear weapons ambitions.

Iran has four potential pathways to a bomb: the secret underground facility called Fordow; the Natanz enrichment facility; Arak, a plutonium heavy water reactor; and lastly, a covert path, encompassing clandestine efforts and facilities not on the radar of the U.S. and its negotiating partners.

The world powers want a deal to address these pathways, limit Iran’s nuclear activity, and provide for inspections intrusive enough to tell them what’s going on with Iran’s program. In exchange, the U.S. and five world powers will further ease sanctions on Iran, which have crippled its economy.

So, what’s the deal with the deadline?

The deadline to reach a “framework” — essentially a political agreement that leads to a comprehensive deal — is Tuesday, March 31. But it’s a self-imposed deadline andnegotiators aren’t totally wedded to it. With little to enforce the deadline except a skeptical U.S. Congress, it’s possible that the Tuesday deadline could slip by as much as two weeks, because Congress is on one of its recesses and doesn’t return to Washington until April 13.

U.S. officials, at least, say that they take the Tuesday deadline seriously and want to deliver some sort of framework by then as a sign of progress. Lawmakers, including many Democrats, are itching to introduce and vote on legislation in April that gives them influence over the deal, whether by introducing additional sanctions if the deal falls through or by voting on the final agreement to ensure it passes muster. The White House has threatened to veto these bills. But lately, it has signaled that it’s open to finding some sort way for Congress to weigh in.

Is there a harder deadline?

The deadline for a final agreement, which will include lots of technical details and diplomatic “annexes,” is the end of June. If negotiators reach a framework accord by day’s end Tuesday — or a little later — it would be a signal that they’re on their way to a full-fledged, detailed agreement. But there will be lots more to discuss if they are able to clear this initial hurdle.

What’s left to figure out for Tuesday’s agreement?

There are several main issues that have been under round-the-clock negotiations: how quickly Iran would get relief from the punishing economic sanctions; how rapidly world powers would “snap back” sanctions if Iran reneges; the scope of Iran’s future nuclear activities; and the degree to which international inspectors will be able to access Iran’s nuclear and military sites.

Tuesday’s announcement is expected to outline the broad strokes of the deal, so it’s likely the finer points of these differences will be kicked over to the remaining months of talks.

Will the deal “dismantle” Iran’s nuclear program?

It will not. However, the president has said the effort has prompted Iran to “roll back” its nuclear program. In November 2013, Iran and world powers agreed on a process of negotiations called the “Joint Plan of Action,” or JPOA, that imposed controls on Iran’s uranium enrichment and fuel programs, but did not eliminate them. For agreeing to limits, Iran was given some relief from the sanctions.

What becomes of the nuclear material still in the country?

Under the 2013 “joint plan of action,” the Iranians may only process uranium to low levels of purity, suitable for use in civilian power reactors. Iran has to stop producing medium-level enriched uranium, under the 2013 plan, and must dilute its existing stocks of medium-level uranium or convert it into an oxide that can’t be used for weapons.

Have they done any of that?

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, Tehran has complied.

Is there any other way of addressing the uranium stockpiles?

Yes. It could ship its stocks to another country — Russia has offered — to be converted into fuel rods for civilian power use. That would be seen as a reassuring step. But over the weekend, an Iranian negotiator seemed to rule out such a step. Whether that’s the government’s final word on that question remains to be seen. In any case, the U.S. says this isn’t the only way that Iran can get rid of its stockpile, citing dilution and conversion as other methods.

Have sanctions been eased already?

Yes, as part of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran has been allowed to recoup $700 million a month, each month, in money held, frozen, overseas. This has been underway basically since early 2014, so Iran has recouped nearly $10 billion in frozen money — along with other funds it has been given access to.

That’s a lot of money!

Yes, but there much more still frozen that Iran would like to get as part of a final deal, up to $130 billion by some estimates.

What makes the West so suspicious of Iran?

The U.S. and its partners have outstanding questions about Iran’s past nuclear work. The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, has had little success in a probe of Tehran in addressing these concerns. This is another issue that likely will be kicked into the next phase of talks.

Is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the biggest critic of a deal?

He’s a big one, but has a lot of company among Obama administration critics at home and abroad. A veto-proof majority of House lawmakers last week sent President Barack Obama a letter warning that they must be convinced a nuclear agreement closes off all pathways to a bomb before they consider voting on legislation to permanently lift sanctions.

Earlier this month, 47 Republican senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.,  sent a letter to Iran’s leaders warning that Congress would have a say in any final accord. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said he will schedule a vote on his bill to give Congress an up-or-down vote on the deal on April 14, as soon as Congress returns from its recess. Sens. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) have drafted legislation that would introduce sanctions if the U.S. and Iran don’t reach an accord by the end of June.

Abroad, Israel and the U.S.’s partners in the Persian Gulf are also worried about the nuclear negotiations and the prospect of an emboldened Iran. Mr. Netanyahu didn’t stop after he addressed a full session of Congress in early March to urge them to scuttle a deal. He said Sunday that the agreement being discussed in Switzerland was worse than he had previously feared.

Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are wary of Iran’s influence in the Middle East and fear a nuclear deal and sanctions relief could embolden Iran to have an even heavier hand in the region.

How long have negotiations with Iran been going on?

This iteration of diplomacy dates to September 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. In November 2013 came the Joint Plan of Action.

The JPOA was initially set to expire in July 2014, and has been extended twice along with negotiations, this time through June 2015.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran and world powers have gone on in some form or another for over a decade. U.S. diplomacy with Iran appeared to get a fresh start in June 2013, when Hasan Rouhani was elected president of Iran after campaigning on the promise to improve ties with the West. Now, 18 months into this round of talks, officials say they’re closer than ever to an agreement. But it’s still an unknown if they’ll get there.

Possible Failure of Iran Nuclear Deal Divides U.S., Israel

White House fears collapse of talks would imperil sanctions, while Netanyahu envisions better accord


As profound as the disagreement is between Israel and the U.S. over the substance of the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran, the two countries disagree just as fundamentally over the consequences of failing to complete such a deal.

In fact, this disagreement is central to the wildly divergent calculations being made by President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The heart of the dispute is simply this: If the talks fail to produce an agreement now, Israel believes the continued pressure of economic sanctions can compel Iran to agree to a much better deal later on. The Obama administration’s fear is that if the U.S. simply walks away from the talks, that could cause the collapse of the sanctions regime—and the end of any real pressure on the Iranians.

This dispute is crucial as negotiations reach their climax this week. After months of diplomatic feints and jabs, the self-imposed deadline for reaching the outlines of a deal arrives Tuesday. And while talks may slip past that point, diplomacy has reached its critical juncture.

As this climactic moment arrives, the Obama administration’s eagerness for a deal is becoming clear. The president and his aides appear to believe a deal can not only curb Iran’s nuclear program short of the ability to produce a weapon, but can open the door to a more productive relationship that reduces broader Iranian misbehavior over time. Israel deeply disagrees on both points, arguing that a deal will only enshrine Iran’s nuclear program and that the desire to preserve such a hard-won agreement will give the U.S. a powerful incentive to look the other way when Iran misbehaves.

All sides agree that the main reason Iran is at the negotiating table in the first place is its desire to win relief from oppressive international economic sanctions in any deal. The dispute between the U.S. and Israel, then, is over whether those sanctions are a perishable commodity.

The administration’s view is that the rest of the world bought into sanctions against Iran in service of diplomacy, not in lieu of it. In other words, the international partners—particularly the more balky ones such as Russia, China and India—agreed to put the heat on Iran precisely to drive forward the negotiations that are under way now, not as some kind of permanent situation.

Indeed, there were great fears, notably in Israel, that an interim nuclear agreement struck with in late 2013—which has frozen some elements of Iran’s nuclear program in place in return for limited sanctions relief while talks continue—would imperil the sanctions regime by opening a crack in it that some nations would then rush through. That hasn’t happened, but U.S. officials doubt that the pressure to stick with sanctions can be sustained forever.

In this view, withdrawing from talks without a deal would give Russia, China India and some European nations a perfect reason to walk away from sanctions, leaving the U.S. and Israel with the worst of all worlds: no negotiated limits on Iran’s nuclear program and no remaining pressure to win them later.

Mr. Netanyahu’s view was encapsulated in his controversial address to a joint meeting of Congress three weeks ago. “Iran’s nuclear program can be rolled back well beyond the current proposal by insisting on a better deal and keeping up the pressure on a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil,” he said.

In the Israeli view, the glue that could keep economic sanctions in place even if talks collapse is a credible military threat against Iran. Other nations so fear the consequences of an American or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities if sanctions collapse that they would stick with the sanctions just to forestall the possibility.

Moreover, Israel believes, the most important and effective economic sanction is the one blocking Iran’s access to the international banking system. That is one the U.S., as the center of the international financial system, has the power to keep in place all by itself, regardless of whether allies agree or not.

And at a time when oil prices are so low, the argument continues, it doesn’t take as much pressure to produce economic pain.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, thinks that, in the end, neither side may be entirely right—or entirely wrong. Allies are more eager to retain good economic ties with the U.S. than with Iran, which means they may hang in with Washington on sanctions, he says. On the other hand, he adds, Iran senses its international isolation slowly easing, so it won’t feel the need to “capitulate” to continued sanctions to avoid a collapse of its regime.

What is clear is that this disagreement lies at the heart of the U.S.-Israeli split as talks reach the finish line.