With significant gaps between the position of parties still remaining, despite serious marathon negotiations unfortunately a final deal by July 20th has proved unreachable, thus necessitating the extension of that deadline, as allowed by the provisions of the Geneva ‘Joint Plan of Action’ singed last November. The big question is, of course, what this means in terms of the negotiation process and the vested interests of both sides, i.e., Iran on the one hand the “P5 +1″ nations on the other hand?
Citing the important progress made as a result of six rounds of intense negotiations during the past several months, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has raised the importance of reaching “a common understanding” whereby a final comprehensive agreement can be reached in the proximate future. The Geneva agreement’s timeline has been for a “duration of six months” and is “renewable by mutual consent.” Both the US President Barack Obama and John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, have echoed Zarif’s sentiment, much to the chagrin of some hawkish US lawmakers and media pundits, who argue that “time is not on our side” and the sanctions coalition is “dissipating.”
One potential complicating factor is related to the retirement of two key Western negotiators this Fall, namely, Catherine Ashton the European Union’s foreign policy chief who has done an admirable job in steering the negotiations on the side of western powers for a long time, and William Burns, the US Deputy Secretary of State, who until recently played a crucial role outside the media limelight, credited for successful bilateral secret diplomacy with Iran that commenced under the previous Iranian administration last March. The departure of these two seasoned diplomats who are keenly familiar with the nuclear file represents a minor setback, depending of course on the nature of their replacements.
Another problem deals with the US midterm congressional elections and the possibility of the Iran nuclear issue turning into a political football, particularly on the part of hawkish pro-Israel politicians who oppose a reasonable deal with Iran and seek instead an Iranian capitulation. This might complicate the domestic US political scene for the sake of a final deal, even though recent opinion polls indicate the vast majority of Americans favor a deal with Iran. Also, the timely publication of a new report that cites tens of billions of dollars of US trade loss as a result of the Iran sanctions gives the Obama administration a powerful tool to continue to push vigorously for a final agreement, whereby Iran’s market could open up to US business.
The lack of unity among the “5 +1″ nations and the growing US-Russia rift over Ukraine is yet another complicating factor that may grow more pronounced in the coming months, in light of the new tough US and European sanctions slapped on Russia recently, although some European countries have refused to join the anti-Russia efforts out of fear of severe economic backlashes. Lest we forget, both the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers did not bother to join the other foreign ministers at the tale end of the latest round in Vienna, reflecting a lack of unity of will (and purpose) that underscores the volatile East-West relations nowadays.
Rapid changes in the geopolitical environment that forms the backdrop to the nuclear talks should also be viewed as a complicating factor. At the time of Geneva agreement’s signing, the Iran nuclear standoff was one of the top international affairs issues and yet, in the space of precious few months, multiple crises ranging from the Ukraine crisis to the new Iraq crisis to the latest Israel-Hamas war, have taken priority, capable of proving as even greater distractions in the months ahead.
But, while the regional and global other issues press themselves with utmost urgency on the diplomatic machinery east and west, important yet-to-be resolved issues germane to the nuclear talks present proximate challenges that need to be resolved. These can be summed up in one question: what are the terms of extension of the deadline (to late November, 2014)?
From Iran’s vantage point this question raises the issue of further sanctions relief, above and beyond the $4.2 billions that were unfrozen per the terms of Geneva agreement. Naturally, Tehran expects further “confidence-building” gestures by the world powers in terms of unfreezing the blocked Iranian assets in overseas banks, as well as continued oil and gas exports unencumbered by any new limitations.
In return, Iran can promise to continue to adhere to the terms of its obligations under the Geneva agreement, i.e., transparency measures, further cooperation with the IAEA, dilution of its 20% enriched uranium stockpile, etc. As a sign of good-faith negotiation, Tehran may be amenable to take additional transparency steps during the next few months in order to demonstrate its firm commitment to reaching a “win-win” final agreement. The mere fact that Iran has agreed not to install new centrifuges is by itself a major concession by Iran that ought to be kept in proper perspective in the west in terms of its high value, given all the hoopla regarding an Iranian “break-out” capability. Losing sight of this important factor, some western pundits have suggested that the powers ought to make fresh nuclear demands from Iran for the duration of extension, such as a decrease in the overall stock of Iran’s stockpile, which should be rejected by Iran since it lacks proper justification, in light of the significant concessions already made in the Geneva agreement.
One key advantage of the extension is, as clearly stated by foreign minister Zarif, the space for negotiation that is required to tackle in one year issues that have piled up over a decade. This time can be used to address, among other things, the issue of UN sanctions resolution, given the Geneva agreement’s stipulation that all parties are to take “additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step, including…addressing the UN Security Council’s consideration of this matter.” Working with the Security Council to prepare a new Iran resolution in tandem with the breakthrough in the talks is indeed necessary and may prove an important catalyst in melting the resistance of US Congress to go along with a final deal, in light of a recent letter to Obama by hundreds of lawmakers demanding a voice in the talks.
On the other hand, the talks’ extension is not without certain side-effects, particularly for Iran’s half-constructed heavy-water facility in Arak, which was supposed to go online in 2015 prior to signing the Geneva agreement, which stipulation is that Iran refrains from commissioning it or even uploading nuclear fuel at the reactor pending a final agreement. Time is not on the side of this important facility kept in limbo, and the sooner the matter is resolved the better