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 Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.