The chances are no greater than 50 percent that the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program will succeed. And even if they do, this will not automatically open the gates for American companies to do business with Iran.
Last November, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—and also Germany—entered into an interim agreement with Iran to freeze and slightly roll back portions of its nuclear weapons program. The parties committed to reach a final agreement by July 20. It is uncertain whether they will be able to achieve this result even with an extension of six additional months.
On the Iranian side, it appears likely that President Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Zarif would like to reach an agreement. Rouhani was elected to jumpstart Iran’s growth and its floundering economy. His objective is to have the sanctions lifted which are crippling Iran’s economy.
On the other hand, Rouhani does not have the final word within Iran. Doubts persist as to whether the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a desire to reach an agreement under any circumstances, or whether he is letting Rouhani go through a useless exercise. A huge struggle is going on in Iran between Rouhani supporters and hardliners for the support of the Supreme Leader on this issue.
If we assume that the Supreme Leader is willing to accept some type of a deal, then the question becomes how far would he be prepared to go and whether that would be sufficient for the United States and its negotiating partners. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is insisting that Iran totally dismantle its nuclear enrichment program. The American negotiators are unlikely to go that far and instead will concentrate on extending the “breakout time,” i.e., the time that it will take Iran to build a bomb once Iran decides to renew its nuclear weapons program. The US may insist on a breakout time of one or two years; whether Iran will accept that is an open question. Whether Congress, the non-proliferation community or the Israeli government will accept that short a time period is also an open question.
Other critical issues are whether Iran will modify its plutonium plant and how substantial those modifications will be. Finally, there is the difficult question of verification: how extensive will be the inspections.
To complicate matters further, the Russian position is an unknown. Will clashes over Ukraine lead Putin to obstruct an agreement with Iran? Or will he decide that Russian self-interest points toward not wanting a nuclear Iran in his southern neighborhood?
Finally, it is important to note that an agreement would not clear the way for US companies and their foreign subsidiaries to do business with Iran. Some sanctions are congressionally mandated. Congress may not want to repeal them even if an agreement is reached.
The President could not eliminate these sanctions unilaterally. On the other hand, he could decide not to enforce or to implement them. If he did, would the next president continue that policy? This would create a quagmire for US companies wanting to do business with Iran.