News / Middle East

Column: Extension Looks Likely for Iran Nuclear Talks

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) and diplomats leave a news conference in Vienna, July 15, 2014.Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) and diplomats leave a news conference in Vienna, July 15, 2014.
x
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) and diplomats leave a news conference in Vienna, July 15, 2014.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) and diplomats leave a news conference in Vienna, July 15, 2014.

The word out of Vienna is that an Iran nuclear deal will not be completed by a July 20 deadline.

Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Vienna on Tuesday that while marathon negotiations that started two weeks ago have made progress, “it is clear we still have more work to do.” 

That the sides cannot quite close all the gaps is as much a function of politics as are technical concerns over aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. So much is riding on these negotiations that for either side to give in too quickly would likely be viewed negatively by key constituencies around the world and back home.

Iran has sunk more than $100 billion into its nuclear program in lost investment and oil revenues caused by economic sanctions. It has seen its main nuclear facility sabotaged by cyber war and lost five scientists to assassination.

A proud nation that currently chairs the non-aligned movement, Iran sees the negotiations as a way to assert its rights to a civilian nuclear program as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to also underline what it views as a double standard that rewards countries such as Israel and India that have developed nuclear weapons outside the NPT. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also worries that he and his regime will lose face if Iran looks overeager to reach a deal -- even if that deal were to profoundly serve the interests of the long-suffering Iranian people.

The United States and its allies have also paid a price for sanctions against Iran, yet the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have shown remarkable unity and tenacity in demanding that Iran place verifiable curbs on the program in return for sanctions relief. Even though only seven countries are taking part in the negotiations, the issue of nuclear proliferation is of global concern and a top foreign policy priority of President Barack Obama. Washington is under pressure from Israel, Arab states and the U.S. Congress to produce an agreement that is as tough as possible.  The delay in the talks shows that the P5+1 are also fighting hard to get their way.

In near-constant consultations that have followed conclusion of an interim nuclear agreement last November, the negotiators have made considerable progress. They have reached understandings about modifying a reactor that could yield plutonium and removing large scale uranium enrichment from an underground facility that would be difficult to destroy in a military attack. Iran has accepted intrusive inspections and is discussing questions about possible past military nuclear research. The parties are stuck over the number and type of centrifuges Iran can maintain for enriching uranium to low levels and the duration of restrictions on Iran’s civilian nuclear activities – Iran appears to accept at most seven years; the P5+1 wants at least a decade. 

Glimmers of compromise are visible. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the New York Times this week that Iran would be willing to essentially freeze its program at current levels, with about 10,000 centrifuges operating, and convert all enriched uranium into a powder form. He said Iran would guarantee for the duration of the agreement not to build a plant that could turn the powder back into gas, thus insuring it could not be enriched further to potential weapons grade. 

The P5+1 are looking for a lower number of centrifuges – no more than 6,000 – or other steps that would make it technically impossible for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon without detection in under six months. One possible compromise would allow Iran to phase out its antiquated machines for a smaller number of more sophisticated centrifuges.

Fortunately, the interim agreement made provision for a possible six-month extension of negotiations. Zarif alluded to this when he told reporters in Vienna at a news conference called to follow and complement Kerry’s: “Enough progress has been made in the talks to continue diplomacy after July 20. The final deadline for the talks is November 25.”

Extending the interim accord is not automatic, however. If the negotiators feel they are close and need only a few weeks more, they might just continue the current terms. If they seek a longer extension, however, Iran will surely want to repatriate more of its oil revenues – currently bottled up in foreign banks – in exchange for continuing to restrict uranium enrichment.

As time goes on, political dangers of an extension multiply. Members of the U.S. Congress who appear to oppose a deal with Iran are already threatening to try to pass new sanctions and sending letters to Obama that try to define an agreement in terms the Iranians will not accept.

Bureaucratically, negotiations may also become more difficult after October, when Catherine Ashton – the long-time European Union foreign affairs chief who has shepherded these talks for five years – steps down, along with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, a top official dealing with Iran over two U.S. administrations.  Meanwhile, mid-term Congressional elections in November could flip the U.S. Senate over to Republican control and further constrict Obama’s already minimalist legislative agenda.

Skeptics about an Iran accord need to recognize that, ultimately, nothing can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons if its leadership chooses to do so. The best insurance that Iran won’t do this is to bind it back into the international community through trade, investment and people-to-people ties. Failure to reach a nuclear agreement means a likely end to P5+1 unity over sanctions – especially if the U.S. is seen as the more intransigent party. In Iranian domestic politics, failure would push the pendulum away from President Hassan Rouhani back toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-era hardliners, with dire consequences for the reform movement.  

With everything else that is going wrong in the region – Syria collapsing, Libya in flames, Israel and Gaza rocketing each other again and barbarians at the gates of Baghdad – surely it is in everyone’s interests to resolve the long-standing impasse with Iran.  If they don’t achieve success by Sunday, negotiators will have earned the right to a brief vacation--but they should get back on the job as soon as possible.


Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, 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.

You May Like

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?i
X
Henry Ridgwell
August 29, 2014 12:26 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid