After the P5+1 world powers met with Iran last week, the whole world was engulfed by speculation that a final deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear program wouldn’t be reached by the July 20 deadline. The disappointing rise of new issues during the Vienna meeting, over things such as Iran’s general missile program and the percentage to which Iran would be able to enrich uranium or the number of centrifuges it could have, were what prompted Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, to say that the “gaps were too large to begin drafting the text” of a final agreement.
Neither Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, nor the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, gave a press briefing once the meeting ended last Friday. There were no smiling faces—even Iran’s currency reacted negatively, falling against the dollar once the news broke that there wouldn’t be a deal any time soon.
The meeting in Vienna wrapped out without even an announcement of a date for further meetings. It underscored what Araghchi said about there having been “no tangible progress.” Back in Tehran, Zarif tweeted that he was “back from Vienna after tough discussions. Agreement is possible. But illusions need to go. Opportunity shouldn’t be missed again like in 2005.”
But a few days later, Aragchi said the next meeting with the P5+1 would be on June 16, which prompted yet more speculation. Many said the deal would be put off for at least another six months, because if the two sides only meet again on June 16 there wouldn’t be enough time for them to agree a deal before July 20.
Then there was another rapid turn on this long and winding road: it was suggested, on the BackChannel website, that the two sides would meet this week in Turkey. What Zarif said on Twitter about ‘illusions needing to go’ now appears like a furtive message to the Western powers, not just a warning to his own people.
Yet another rumor took off like wildfire at this point. All over social media in Iran, people were saying that the talks had stalled because the negotiating team hadn’t had the same power and authority as before. If true, both sides sat down at the negotiating table beholden to illusions and wrapped up in unrealistic expectations. Then why have they agreed to meet again only a week later? Do they still believe they can meet the July 20 deadline? What convinced Iran—or, to put it more clearly, what convinced the Supreme Leader to convince the negotiating team—of the necessity of reaching an agreement by July?
Almost as the P5+1 meeting was breaking, Iran reached an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency on five new practical measures to increase cooperation. In a technical meeting in Tehran on Wednesday, held within the framework for cooperation agreed last November, the two sides released a joint statement detailing those new measures.
As Zarif said, this is an opportunity not to be missed. Iran is run by unpredictable politicians, and within a few months it could be that the Supreme Leader would have withdrawn his support for the nuclear talks. Perhaps the negotiating team have realized the benefit of reaching a deal before Catherine Ashton finishes her term at the end of this year. If Iran extends the interim deal in July, they would eventually have to sit down and talk with a new European foreign policy chief.
We should not discount the way a change in leadership can affect negotiations. Iran did much better on the nuclear front when Mohamed El-Baradei was the director of the IAEA that it has done during the tenure of Yukiya Amano. Catherine Ashton was clearly comfortable with Iran’s current negotiating team—she even visited the Islamic Republic in March for a series of high-level meetings. Closing the Iranian nuclear file once and for all would be a legacy for both Ashton and Rouhani—especially for the latter, as he has promised the Iranian people that he would resolve the issue by the end of his first year in office. Iranians understand that the cannot miss this opportunity.