About that failed nuclear agreement with Tehran

There was room for progress, but the magic moment slipped away

A solution was close – there had even been mention of a 95% agreement on the issues under discussion. But by the 24 November deadline, negotiators had failed to cross the finish line that would have put an end to the endless saga of the Iranian nuclear controversy.

No information has been provided so far as to which stumbling blocks thwarted the agreement, nor do we know how these questions can be resolved during the six months between now and the next deadline, set for June 2015.

This is the technical outcome of the talks, whereas in political terms it is important to note that these frustrating Vienna negotiations took place under particularly favourable circumstances. A best-case scenario that could perhaps be maintained but certainly won’t be bettered, while there is a strong possibility that the political climate could worsen.

The favourable circumstances were as follows:

• The presence of competent negotiators seriously committed to finding a solution on both sides: in particular, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif and, until his recent retirement, former US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

• The threat of the so-called Islamic State, against which the Americans and Iranians find themselves on the same side, as they were at the time of the attacks against the Taliban forces in 2001.

• The importance of success for President Obama. A solution to the Iranian nuclear question could be the only meaningful accomplishment of a foreign policy littered with disappointments and defeats.

• For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his centrist government, a solution is necessary in order to create a more moderate regime, while failure would bring a premature end to this political agenda.

Why then, in spite of all of these favourable conditions, did the negotiations flounder?

The handover from President Bush to Obama led to an important change in the American approach that had made an agreement impossible under Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. At that time the Iranians only possessed a few dozen centrifuges and would have been willing to accept a quantitative ceiling of dozens and not thousands, as is the case today. However, the Americans and Europeans wanted to impose a ‘zero centrifuge’ policy.

A legacy of this agenda still endures in the case of Iran, for which the standard rules set out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are insufficient and what must be averted is not the move from civil nuclear to military nuclear but the threshold capacity per se. A capacity that other states (like Japan) possess without being considered in violation of the NPT. Once again, when it comes to Iran, Washington is not fully comfortable with the ‘trust but verify’ solution famously employed by Ronald Reagan towards the Soviet Union. If an agreement were to depend only on numbers, deadlines and verification methods, one could be optimistic about the possibility of cutting a deal in June. The problem is that this delay opens a window of opportunity for the agreement’s enemies, some of whom sprang into action just hours after it was announced that the Vienna deadline had not been met.

First among these is the US Congress, whose Republican-dominated House – as of January, Republicans will hold a majority in the Senate too – has always promoted unconditional backing for Israel, and some representatives have already called for the approval of new sanctions, a move that would effectively put an end to negotiations. 

In Tehran too, there are fears that the hiatus in negotiations could be exploited by extremist forces that, although a minority, continue to hold positions of power within the regime, from the Iranian parliament to the Revolutionary Guards. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with one eye on the survival of the regime, allowed Zarif the necessary flexibility to move ahead with serious negotiations but balanced this with repeated expressions of scepticism about the Americans’ good intentions. He is just as likely to wash his hands of the matter in the case of failure and change tune yet again by introducing a policy shift that is likely to concern not only the nuclear question but foreign affairs in general.

The months ahead are thus likely to be challenging. The failure of the negotiations is still on the cards, with significant repercussions beyond the nuclear issue: further embitterment of regional tensions, growing uncertainty about the possibility of halting the wave of jihadism, and the chance that, if Rohani’s brief season of cautious reform were to be stymied prematurely, Iran would be once again backed up the blind alley of aggressive ideological populism. It is even rumoured that the hugely discredited former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is making his way back into politics.

An unwise Italian decision reached in 2003 means that Italy is not part of the negotiating team, unlike Germany that despite not being one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council is the +1 in the P5+1 group involved in negotiations.

Nor is Italy represented by Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, seeing as the outgoing Representative, Lady Catherine Ashton, retained her position as Chair of the P5+1 group. The question remains, especially in the light of the extension to the negotiation period, just how long Lady Ashton is expected to hold the post.

Nonetheless, Italy and the other European countries should be able to make their opinions and interests – not just those of an economic nature – count. In terms of regional security, a breakdown in negotiations with Iran and its return to a position of isolation and provocation would be undoubtedly negative. 

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