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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 49, November 29, 2014

On the Brink of Collapse: Nuclear Agreement with Iran

Monday 1 December 2014, by Ninan Koshy


There was great expectation that the majestuc Coburg Palace Hotel in Vienna would witness the signing of an epoch-making agreement heralding dramatic changes in international relations, especially in West Asia. But unfortu-nately that did not happen.

The negotiations between P5+1—the USA, UK, Russia, China, France, Germany—on one side and Iran on the other on Iran’s nuclear programme did not collapse, but failed to make a comprehensive agreement at Vienna by November 24, the deadline set in July. The deadline has now been extended till July 1, 2015 and talks will resume in December. But the extension raises the risk of an end to these negotiations with adverse consequences.

Why did the negotiations fail in spite of the substantial progress that is claimed to have been made in Vienna? Such a claim has been made by both sides. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “The gaps between the two sides had narrowed at the latest round of talks.” He added: “It is true that we could not reach an agreement but we can still say that big steps have been taken.” US Secretary of State John Kerry was more guarded when he said that “real substantial progress had been made”, adding that “some significant points of disagree-ment remained”. He also added that the talks were not going to get easier just because we extend them: “They are going to stay tough.”

It is significant to note that while gaps remained in the positions of P5+1 and Iran, there was no criticism of the stance taken by Iran at the talks as it usually happened. Instead there was acknowledgement of the fact that Iran “has lived up to its obligations under the interim agreement and its nuclear programme has not only been frozen, it has been reversed” in the words of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Dianne Feinstein. “Today Iran is further away from acquiring a nuclear weapon than before negotiations began,” she said when the announcement about the extension of the talks came.

Those who have been critical of talks for a final agreement with Iran underestimate the scope of progress already made under the Geneva accord last year whereby Iran agreed to make serious nuclear concessions; it has faithfully implemented these as per the latest safeguard report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). From the vantage point of non-proliferation these concessions—such as the depletion of Iran’s 20 per cent uranium enrichment which puts it close to weapons grade, as well as inspections on a regular basis—reflect solid progress in ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.

But still there were major problems when the two sides met in Vienna. Iran’s enrichment capacity and the lifting of sanctions on Iran continued to be the main hurdles to cross. Western officials say Iran is refusing to countenance curbing uranium enrichment activity that can have both civilian and military uses. Another hurdle is sanctions, which Iran wants ended swiftly and not what the West wants: suspended and scrapped progressively, as and when Iran fulfils the terms of a final deal.

Iran, which says its nuclear programme is solely for energy and industrial purposes, has seen its economy squeezed and oil output slashed under the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and the US Administration. The recent slide in oil prices has dealt another blow to Iran. It is also squeezing Russia, another country targeted by Western sanctions that has agreed to buy oil from Iran and sell nuclear reactors to Iran. The speed at which sanctions are rolled back was one of the main sticking points at Vienna.

Credit goes to President Obama for holding together the very disparate group of negotiating partners—the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany—to pursue an agreement that would remove the constant threat of a military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme and give Iran the opportunity to play its role in the international community more responsibly. To that end all parties have been willing to back what have increasingly become bilateral US-Iran negotiations, tacitly recognising that no agreement on the issue is possible without full US involvement.

They know that the stakes could not be higher. If America and Iran settle the nuclear issue, they would have overcome thirtyfive years of bitter confrontation that began with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The nuclear issue, which is not a technical issue but a political issue, emerged at one stage in this confrontation. Since the time of the Iranian revolution the US has refused to recognise Tehran as an independent state and has tried various means to subdue a political system that would not fit into the American vision of ‘world order’.

The shift in the US policy towards Iran came with the Obama presidency in its second term. The ‘tough diplomacy’ towards Iran, mainly under pressure from Israel, was given up. The shift was also helped by John Kerry replacing Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State. Clinton often appeared to speak about Iran in the same belligerent language of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Kerry, as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had once stated in an interview with the Financial Times that “Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear power and enrichment to that purpose”. In the P5+1 meeting with Iran in February 2013, Kerry offered the Iranian Government a deal that it could live with. However, the Iranian Govern-ment under President Ahmadinejad hesitated, bargained over the deal and by that time came the Iranian elections. The new Iranian President Rouhani grasped the deal and the interim agreement—known as the Joint Programme of Action (JPA)—was made.

The JPA was supposed to lead to a final settlement in six months and consequently there were many rounds of talks between Iran and P5+1 before the deadline. Intensive negotiations were held in July 2014. But on some core issues significant gaps remained and the new deadline of November 24 was agreed upon.

As mentioned earlier, while substantial progress was made in the negotiations during the days leading to the deadline, a comprehensive agreement was not possible, mainly because of pressure from hard-line establishments in the two countries, the USA and Iran, that did not want an agreement. The Republican Party’s election victory bringing the US Congress under its control was a factor that Kerry had to reckon with in the negotiations. Pressure was also mounted by Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies.

These enemies of a deal, especially from the West and West Asia, will now intensify their efforts to sabotage the process and argue that a sustainable and effective nuclear deal was impossible and the failure of the latest round of talks proves it. This only push Iran to the fast and steady path of reaching the nuclear threshold.

Republicans in the US Congress called for new sanctions on Iran immediately after the talks were extended. The Israeli Government and the Israel lobby in the US were quick to apply direct pressure on US lawmakers. The Israeli Prime Minister said the failure to reach a deal “gives an opportunity to continue to exercise pressures that have proven to be the only thing that brought Iran to the table to continue them, tighten them”.

Senior Republicans in the Senate, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, said in a joint statement: “We believe that this latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased economic sanctions and a requirement that a final deal between Iran and the US be sent to the Congress for final approval.”

Most Iran specialists in Washington believe that any new sanction legislation will likely sabotage the talks and strengthen hardliners in Tehran who oppose accommodation and favour accelerating the nuclear programme. “The worst scenario for US interests is one in which the Congress overwhelmingly passes new sanctions, Iran resumes its nuclear activities and international unity unravels,” wrote Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Within Iran, efforts to undermine Rouhani by his conservative opponents could intensify and one of their first targets would be Mohamad Javad Zarif, Iran’s suave Foreign Minister and chief negotiator. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei‘s support for the negotiations has always been ambiguous and the new develop-ments may be used by him to withdraw the concessions already given and insist on Iran’s nuclear rights.

With the possibility of a deal with the USA receding, Iran is likely to turn to the East. The sanctions could be busted at least in part by Iran strengthening its relations with China and Russia. China is Iran’s largest oil customer and Russia has agreed to build a new generation of nuclear reactors in Iran. A senior Iranian official said recently: “We have always had good relations with China and Russia. Naturally if the nuclear talks fail, we will increase our cooperation with our friends and will provide them more opportunities in Iran’s high potential market. We have common views with Russia and China on many issues, including Syria and Iraq.” This can break not only the UN Security Council consensus on Iran policy but also the very grouping of nations that negotiate with Iran.

The probability of a military confrontation will increase considerably in the event of the total failure of the negotiations. Military action by the USA and Israel against Iran has been on the tables of both countries for long. But the US has so far been able to restrain Israel. How long can such restraint be effective? This is a question that is being raised now. Any military action by Israel against Iran will invariably bring in the USA and the Gulf monarchies and will have disastrous consequences not only for the region but also outside. Taking into account the fact that a number of military conflicts are taking place in the region, changing power equations and even redrawing borders of countries, the course of any military action against Iran will be unpredictable. The involvement of Israel, the only nuclear weapon state in the region, will add to the complexity of such developments.

Last year’s negotiations on the nuclear issue opened secret talks between Washington and Tehran. The deep enmity between the two has been a decisive factor in all the developments in the region since 1979. This year the US and Iran have found themselves on the same side on the battlefield against the Islamic State, especially in Iraq, where both Washington and Tehran provide support to the Baghdad Government.

At the end of October President Obama sent a “secret letter” to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pointing to the shared interest in fighting the Islamic State. In this letter Obama urged the Ayatollah to facilitate a nuclear agreement. The President stressed that any cooperation on fighting the Islamic State was contingent on Iran reaching a nuclear agreement by the deadline of November 24.

Washington knows Iran’s cooperation is needed to resolve the complex issues in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq, but is reluctant to acknowledge the fact. It was hoped a nuclear agreement between the USA and Iran would also create a climate in which US-Iran cooperation is possible on other issues. This hope has been dashed at least for the present.

Dr Ninan Koshy, formerly a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, USA, is the author of The War on Terror—Reordering the World and Under the Empire—India’s New Foreign Policy.

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