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

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.