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opinion

Derek H. Burney was Canada's ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He was directly involved in negotiating the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.

To the surprise of some, the nuclear negotiations with Iran have produced a framework agreement that goes beyond principles to include concrete steps that will limit Iran's nuclear enrichment capabilities and stockpile and see the redesign or conversion of its known nuclear facilities. If Iran meets its obligations, sanctions will be lifted.

There are still many details to be worked out by the June deadline for a completed agreement. The "historic" deal announced by Barack Obama with great fanfare in the Rose Garden is just the first step and the President hasn't waited for the coffee to cool before drinking it. The road ahead will have to be paved with more than just good intentions.

This initiative, long in the making, has been fraught with huge problems and a distinct lack of trust from the outset. Having a lumpy negotiating team on one side (the "P5+1") and a shady regime on the other has not helped.

The gaps on basic issues have been profound and divergent goals have plagued talks from the outset. The United States ostensibly wants to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, or, at the very least, to have a year's warning of an impending breakout. It's been prepared to relax sanctions to that end. The Iranians want sanctions lifted but show less enthusiasm about completely abandoning their nascent plans to develop nuclear weapons. For a country awash in oil, it is difficult to believe that the peaceful use of enriched uranium is the actual goal. The fact that North Korea is the likely sponsor of nuclear weapons technology in exchange for Iranian oil makes the prospect of enforcement even more dubious.

The previous track record of monitoring North Korea, which broke all of its negotiated commitments and crossed the nuclear threshold, is inauspicious. It hung like a dead albatross over the Iran talks. But the burden is now on Tehran to honour its commitments and come clean with international inspectors.

Any negotiation has to be worked on different levels – local, regional, global – with negotiating partners and key stakeholders who are not soulmates but "teams of rivals" motivated by competing interests and concerns. That is going to be the President's continuing challenge going forward, given the steady erosion of trust in U.S. leadership.

The P5+1 is not a cohesive entity. The Russians and Chinese have strategic and commercial interests of their own with Iran, not necessarily in line with Western powers. Some of the Europeans seem more interested in deriving commercial advantage after sanctions are eased than in preserving nuclear non-proliferation. If Iran defects, this will make any snap-back of sanctions difficult if not impossible.

America's allies in the region – notably Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – have not concealed their staunch opposition to the negotiations and their deep-rooted concern about any agreement with a regime that they fundamentally mistrust. Mr. Obama and his senior officials have their work cut for them in the weeks and months ahead to convince America's allies that the proposed deal is workable.

The U.S. Congress has gone to unusual lengths to signal its dismay throughout these negotiations and the will remain so going forward. Leadership is not just about taking the helm at the negotiating table, but building domestic support for any new initiative. On this score, the administration has failed to secure Congress's support for any kind of deal with Iran.

Remember, too, that what is being negotiated is simply a framework of principles and not the text of an actual agreement in which the devil will inevitably have ample scope to exploit the detail and the loopholes. Repeated promises that the details will emerge in the final agreement in June will ring increasingly hollow if Iran backs away from its promises. Tangible commitments are a sign of progress and in this case, there appear to be none.

All of this still leaves an embattled U.S. administration out on a precarious limb. There will be little hope of sustaining Congress and the allies whatever has been agreed at the negotiating table if Iran continues to wage battles on other fronts, as in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and on Israel's borders. That will undermine its own credibility and make Mr. Obama's sales pitch an even harder sell. Tests of credibility go well beyond the issues that are on the negotiating table. The price of the apparent U.S. seduction of Iran must also be better behaviour by Iran in the escalating war between Shiites and Sunnis in the region.