London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As the countdown to a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear file comes to an end with one day to go before the November 24 deadline, all sides expressed hope that an agreement was still within reach, although both parties argue that the onus to strike a deal is on the other.
A decade-long nuclear standoff between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the US, Britain, France, Russia and China—plus Germany (commonly known as the P5+1) has reached the decisive stage of difficult but practical compromises.
In a nail-biting few final hours before the deadline, US Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled plans to return to the US and continued talks with Iran on Saturday. Kerry claimed progress had been made but there were still “big gaps” to close.
World powers expect Iran to prove not just for now, but for the foreseeable future, that its nuclear program is verifiably and continuously limited to peaceful purposes with no room to break out toward militarization.
Iran on the other hand is determined to preserve a face-saving level of nuclear capabilities including a considerable number of operational centrifuges, but agrees to some limitation under the safeguards of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). For the West however, Iran’s position to comply with the NPT and its Additional Protocol, which permits unrestricted access to nuclear sites, is insufficient given suspicions over other possible clandestine sites and research programs.
Vienna has witnessed intense shuttle diplomacy by various foreign and deputy ministers who have been meeting with the Iranian delegation to thrash out differences. The gap between the parties is still wide on two central issues: First, Iran’s permissible level of uranium enrichment and second, the extent and pace of the lifting of international sanctions on Iran.
Ali Khoram, an adviser to Iran’s foreign minister told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the active presence of the US Secretary of State John Kerry in the last round of Vienna talks seems to indicate that the US has retreated a bit from the unworkable stand it took in Muscat and is discussing an alternative, more practical formula for Iran.”
High-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program took place last week in the Omani capital Muscat but ended with no immediate breakthrough on a deal.
“Failure of the negotiations will inevitably boost radicals on both sides and will create far more chaotic and dangerous results both regionally and internationally,” Khoram added.
Rouhani’s government is under immense pressure from conservative and radical factions within the Islamic Republic not to concede to “the West’s arrogant and excessive demands.” At the same time, Obama’s administration faces the cumbersome task of convincing Republicans that its policy of engagement with Iran addresses Israel’s grave concerns over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
In March 2012 Obama addressed the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC’s policy conference saying, “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table”—coining the now well-worn phrase. Although it is yet to been seen whether all options will really be explored before the deadline passes.
Mohammad Hosseini, a senior member of the Resistance Front, an ultra-conservative faction affiliated with Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “if negotiations fail, Rouhani has to be held accountable to the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] and the nation.” However, he added that “in the event of no deal and an end to negotiations, Iran has not lost anything and will resume its nuclear activity to the level before the Geneva interim deal.”
The P5+1 group and Iran reached an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program a year ago, it expires on Monday.
From the British perspective, the position of the UK government has remained firm that “a deal will only be possible if Iran agrees to meaningful restrictions on its nuclear program,” a UK foreign office spokesperson, Farah Dakhlallah, told Asharq Al-Awsat. “Only then will the world have confidence that its program is exclusively peaceful, in return, the E3+3 is ready to agree significant, early sanctions relief,” Dakhlallah said, using an alternative acronym for the P5+1.
“Whilst there has been further progress in the most recent round of talks, positions remain far apart on key issues,” the foreign office spokesperson added.
Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary was in Vienna to attend the negotiations.
Of the three European powers involved in the talks, Germany appears most determined to reach a rapid conclusion to the nuclear negotiations given its historically strong trade links with Iran. Nora Müller, the director of the International Affairs Department at the Körber Foundation in Berlin said that “Germany’s key interest is to resolve the nuclear conflict with Iran and to bring Tehran back into the fold of the international community. As a member of the E3+3, Berlin is bound by the provisions of the Geneva interim agreement.”
The other tricky issue, should talks collapse, will be the internal weakening of Rouhani’s government before two crucial elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body with power to appoint and supervise the Supreme Leader, before the end of next year.
Fayaz Zahed, a Tehran-based reformist lecturer told Asharq Al-Awsat that “it seems after one full year of intense negotiations, all sides will agree on a workable formula to extend negotiations to reach a full agreement. However, the failure of negotiations will be disastrous for Rouhani’s government and only aids radicals to regain the political initiative.”
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif was harshly criticized inside Iran by conservatives for his comments in analyzing the consequences of a no deal during a Q&A in New York back in September. The gist of the analysis was that if Rouhani’s moderate government could not deliver a deal, the radicals would re-seize power in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
Berlin-based Müller acknowledges that “the failure to return to Tehran with an acceptable deal would significantly weaken Foreign Minister Zarif’s—and by extension President Rouhani’s—position in Iran’s domestic balance of power. To deliver on his promise to improve the country’s dire economic situation, Rouhani is in urgent need of sanctions relief. Should he remain empty-handed, this would play into the hands of his conservative opponents.”
It is understood that Iran is also pushing hard for all UN Security Council sanctions to be lifted immediately as the result of any agreement. However, for Western powers, UN sanctions are at the core of international counter-proliferation efforts and their lifting is only possible when Iran has demonstrated the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, through implementation of its obligations including the NPT, Additional Protocol, and US and EU demands.
The official line of the Western powers is that “should the talks collapse, the limited sanctions relief Iran has benefited from thus far would cease, and Iran would face further international pressure. We could for example consider further sanctions,” UK foreign office spokesperson Dakhlallah told Asharq Al-Awsat.
What is evident is that all sides agree that the combination of Obama and Rouhani in power presents a rare opportunity to reach an agreement; a closing window to secure and resolve the most challenging political and nuclear standoff of the twenty-first century so far.