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Opinion: The Nuclear Tango | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrive at a news conference at the end of the Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva November 10, 2013. (Reuters)

When US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Abu Dhabi on Monday that his country was not in a rush to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, he must have been trying to give reassurances that Washington was not under pressure to accept an agreement that did not address all concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, especially regarding enrichment levels and the ability to produce nuclear weapons.

The fact is that it is new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his team who are in a rush to reach an agreement that will relieve Western sanctions. This is because he only has a limited time to act—not set by the West, but by the hardline conservatives in Iran. It is these hardliners who have given Rouhani a deadline that is fast approaching. Following this, they will pounce on him and his aides in order to say, ‘We told you there was no benefit in going to negotiations.’

Rouhani won a comfortable majority that reflected a change in the Iranian mood at home, with promises to open up to the outside world, end Iran’s international isolation, and improve the economy, which is suffering from high inflation rates. Rouhani also pledged to solve the problems related to international economic sanctions that constrain trade movement and financial transactions and raise the cost of imports and insurance. Rouhani knows that he will not be able to achieve all this without resolving the source of the problem, which is the nuclear issue. It has been 10 years of going back and forth, until sanctions ultimately became stifling.

The Iranian street’s eagerness for the lifting of economic sanctions by reaching an agreement at these negotiations was shown by the fact that many Iranians stayed up until the early hours to follow developments in the difficult negotiations in Geneva between the P5+1—the US, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany—and Tehran. Expectations were raised from the start, when foreign ministers attended the negotiations instead of lower-ranking officials as had been previously planned. However, these expectations of a quick solution were soon deflated. The “nuclear tango” between Iran and the P5+1 powers will take a long time to reach its end, and will require greater effort from Tehran.

The P5+1 are aware of the pressure on Rouhani from the hardliners inside Iran and that those hardliners will be the first to celebrate the failure to reach an agreement. They know that going in this direction will inevitably lead to fundamental changes in policies, especially in relation to major regional issues, where Iranian interference has led to tensions instead of solutions.

If a mountain could be made out of the mistrust accumulated over decades, and if we had to climb that mountain to reach a nuclear agreement, a large part of this mountain would be related to the the Iranian government and the internal struggles between different institutions. However, the fact of the matter is that all these institutions fall under the control of the supreme leader. A similar thing happened during the presidency of Mohamed Khatami, who also sought openness and was an acceptable face outside the country. However, by the end of his presidency, he found himself semi-isolated in the political game, with the majority of important decisions out of his hands.

There is a long way to go to defuse this crisis, which affects other regional issues. For its part, Iran views these issues as cards that can be played during the nuclear negotiations. A large part of this is for the international parties to believe that the desire to implement any agreement will be the decision of the Iranian institution as a whole—as well as the desire that it will not be spoiled, as was the case before, by playing for time and presenting different faces each time they go back to the negotiating table.

This is the reason that could make major powers hesitant to sign any agreement that does not include guarantees and conditions which cannot be violated. This is in order to guarantee their primary objective, namely to ensure the veracity of what Tehran is saying about how it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Possession of such nuclear weapons would create a new reality in the Middle East and launch an uncontrollable nuclear race.

This may explain the negotiation strategy, which is like a step-by-step policy—a tit for tat policy—until a comprehensive agreement can be reached after a few months. The important thing now is that the ball is in Tehran’s court and the new negotiation session scheduled for November 20 will show to what extent Iran is ready for real change.