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Column: Crunch Time for Iran Nuclear Talks

(L-R) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hold a trilateral meeting in Vienna, Austria, Oct. 15, 2014.

(L-R) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hold a trilateral meeting in Vienna, Austria, Oct. 15, 2014.

With only one week to go before a self-imposed deadline, the nail-biting is accelerating over whether Iran will reach an agreement with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) that curbs its nuclear program for years to come in return for sanctions relief.

Negotiations formally resume Tuesday in Vienna following intensive talks last week in Oman among Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that apparently failed to achieve a breakthrough.

But the gaps between the sides are narrowing. Progress was made on key issues, including agreeing to send out Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium to Russia – which would turn it into fuel for current and envisioned civilian power reactors. Meanwhile, an Iranian source told VOA on condition of anonymity that Iran might accept an initial suspension – rather than revocation – of U.N. sanctions that have provided the legal basis for economic penalties imposed against the Islamic republic since 2006.

“Any joint plan of action has to be durable over a period of time,” a senior Barack Obama administration official said Monday in response to a question about the Iranian report. The official added that a comprehensive deal would be similar to the interim accord reached last year with an Iranian action followed by relief of sanctions “not just in one instance.” Negotiators “have continued to make progress but we still have some gaps to close," the official said. "It is still possible to do it all [by Nov. 24] – difficult but possible.”

If a final deal is not reached, the parties have several options including “banking” the terms already agreed to and attempting to finalize an accord within the next few months. Negotiators could also agree to extend an interim deal, reached a year ago, which has already been renewed once last July.

Nuclear deal could be game-changer

One of the reasons that the negotiations have taken so long is because much more is riding on these talks than just the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear facilities. An agreement could alter the balance of power in the Middle East and challenge the Iranian regime’s narrative about its identity and role.

Hard-line Iranian officials – especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – portray their country as a pillar of “resistance” against a U.S.-led world order. To sign an agreement with the P5+1 that verifiably caps Iran’s nuclear program for another decade or so would affirm the legitimacy of that order.

As Robert Litvak, a non-proliferation expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has written, the nuclear issue is a proxy for the broader conflict between the U.S. and Iran that dates to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“The issue is not one of a simple tradeoff between nuclear technology and transparency,” Litvak says. “Nuclear diplomacy with America, the ‘Great Satan,’ goes to the heart of Iran’s unresolved identity crisis: is the Islamic Republic a revolutionary state or an ordinary country?

This tension helps explain the vehemence of opponents of a deal in Iran as well as in the U.S., Israel and Iran’s Arab adversaries. While the latter see the problem as the Iranian government and worry as much or more about its interventionist policies in the region as about the number of centrifuges it has spinning, some in Iran see a nuclear deal as starting down a slippery slope of subservience to the “Great Satan.”

The hardline Keyhan newspaper believes that Iran has already conceded too much. It editorialized last week, according to a translation by the Mideast Mirror service, that officials from President Hassan Rouhani's administration are projecting “an image of helplessness… In the middle of nuclear negotiations, the remarks of one member of the government link the country's future with the economic sanctions, while others shout that the treasury being empty and still others claim that the U.S. can destroy the country's infrastructure in few minutes. What message is being sent to the enemy? Does it achieve anything besides making them bolder?”

Other Iranians say it’s time to ease the rift with the U.S. given the instability roiling Iran’s neighbors and the pressure that is placing on Iranian finances and allies.

“America has been able to enter a new phase of relations with Iran, which has at least resulted in reducing the wall built by 35 years of distrust,” wrote the reformist paper Arman in an editorial also translated by Mideast Mirror. However, it also said that “speaking about the normalization of Iran/U.S. relations is an overstatement.”

Its funds depleted by sanctions and lower oil prices and its forces over-extended trying to shore up governments in Iraq and Syria from the threat of Sunni fundamentalists, many Iranian officials have come to the conclusion that they have to shed their country’s outlier status to be part of a broader security dialogue about the fate of the Middle East. The Barack Obama administration has made clear that the entry ticket to more high-level diplomacy is a nuclear agreement – or at the very least a framework that continues to limit Iran’s nuclear advances.

President Obama’s recent letter to Khamenei reportedly discussed the mutual challenge faced by the U.S. and Iran from the group that calls itself the Islamic State. The White House denies that Obama offered to soften terms on the nuclear issue but the implication was that a nuclear agreement could facilitate cooperation against the terrorist group and on other matters.

Negotiations aren’t the final step

If an agreement is reached, both Khamenei and Obama will need to publicly endorse it to stave off domestic critics – including a conservative-dominated parliament in Iran and a soon-to-be Republican-led Congress in the U.S.

Last week, future Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he would wait until Nov. 24 to see if an agreement is reached – or the interim deal is extended -- before supporting any of several bills threatening new sanctions against Iran.

Obama has sufficient authority to waive most U.S. sanctions of concern to Iran without having to go to Capitol Hill. He can also re-impose them if Iran does not faithfully implement an agreement.

With so much effort already expended, both the U.S. and Iran should summon the political will to make whatever final compromises are necessary. The best answer to the critics in both countries is an agreement that delivers tangible benefits and resolves at least one of the crises tearing apart the Middle East.

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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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