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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 12, March 14, 2015

US - Iran Talks Reaching Ides Of March

Saturday 14 March 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

The US-Iran negotiations have successfully crossed the boulder that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw in the way via his outreach to the American lawmakers. The conclusion can be safely drawn after Netanyahu’s speech that neither do the US lawmakers feel emboldened to enact new legislation intended to complicate the US-Iran talks nor is President Barack Obama feeling browbeaten to backtrack on his policy toward Iran.

Surprisingly, after all the brouhaha in the recent weeks, Netanyahu failed to rally the political class in Washington behind his thesis that a deal with Iran is only going to punctuate Tehran’s inexorable march toward clandestinely developing nuclear weapons. On the other hand, his theatrical address before the US Congress has raised such political dust and has proved to be so divisive an intervention in American politics—and added, equally, to the reality that the majority public opinion in the US favours an Iran deal—that a question-mark can be out on the sheer efficacy of the Senate even passing a bill requiring Obama to submit any agreement with Iran for congressional approval.

All that the Republican-dominated Congress may end up having will be the reserve power (which it already wields) to delay by an year or two the permanent lifting of sanctions against Iran if a deal is reached which, of course, can also be circumvented through executive action by the President to waive the sanctions temporarily.

To be sure, there was a discernible swagger in Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks to the media following his latest round of talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Zarif in Montreux, Switzerland. Kerry claimed “some progress” at the latest round but added the caveat that “there are still significant gaps and important choices to be made”. He seemed to hint at an “increased breakout time” as something that the US is seeking but is yet unsure of it finding acceptability in Tehran.

Simply put, we will have to wait till March 15 to find out when the next round of talks is slated to take place. In this case, however, the Ides of March do not necessarily evoke the notoriously dark mood in William Shakespeare’s time, but instead from Kerry’s tone would seem to hark back to the late antiquity signifying the celebratory day it used to be for Romans marking the ceremonies of the new year and the expulsion of the old year.

Indeed, the fact that Kerry left for Riyadh to take the Saudi leadership into confidence and to brief his GCC counterparts (who are assembling in Riyadh to hear him out) as well as his travel plan thereafter to proceed to Europe to confabulate with his British, French and German counterparts in the weekend would suggest that while it is “certainly possible” (as Kerry put it) that the talks may not ultimately yield any deal on time, the odds are possibly moving in favour of a deal being reached.

That is also the impression one gets from an extraordinary interview by Zarif with the NBC News, where he literally tore into Netanyahu as someone who sees peace as an existential threat and thereby marginalises himself.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.