Commentary

Iran Talks Extended — But Can They Succeed?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The P5+1 talks between Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, France and China have been extended for another four months. A long-term solution that would ensure Iran’s uranium stockpile is not used for weapons remains, thus far, out of reach, despite intense diplomatic efforts.  The Iranians still insist on their right to maintain a civilian nuclear program, although the attitude in the regional dailies reflects a deep suspicion that any nuclear capacity could be used as a leverage in the region. Whatever the motivation, there is a general consensus that the extension of the talks was a positive development, but that in order for more progress in the future, the Iranians will have to convince their neighbors of their intentions.

 One could be forgiven for wondering whether any progress now or in the future is possible at all, given the extent of Iranian demands. For example, according to a report on Tehran Times, “The Iranian foreign minister said on Tuesday that Tehran’s enrichment capacity, the Arak heavy-water reactor, and the sanctions against the country are the main sticking points in the talks between Iran and the major powers....Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, also said that Iran’s position on the issue of the number of centrifuge machines that Tehran would be allowed to maintain under a final nuclear deal is clear, adding, ‘The other side’s insistence in this regard is ineffective.’”

Mr. Zarif’s statement might explain why Asharq Alawsat’s Samih Maaytah offers us the suggestion that there is no possibility for a deal with Iran on the nuclear program: “Iran is not interested in developing a full nuclear program. Rather, it wants to control certain levers of power that will allow it to realize its expansionist ambitions. Its incomplete nuclear program is one of these levers, as is Hezbollah, which has high levels of influence in Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border....Coming to an agreement on the nuclear program is not, in and of itself, a goal for Iran. Resolving the matter through a definitive agreement does not advance Iran’s expansionist platform. This is because the nuclear program must remain a tool Iran can use to exert pressure and further its wider interests....As long as the region’s issues remain unresolved, the crux of Iran’s foreign policy will be to ensure negotiations on the nuclear issue continue. Iran will be at the table as long as this subject is on the table, and that will allow it to influence other issues in the region. It will never resolve issues it can use as leverage to achieve its goals and further its sectarian agenda.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. In a recent editorial, the Peninsula’s editorial staff argues strongly in favor of searching for a solution that all parties can find acceptable: “There is no alternative to finding a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear issue…. There is no alternative to negotiations, and extra time and more intense negotiations have a positive effect of nudging both sides to make concessions to avert a crisis. It is for this reason that an agreement reached between Iran and six world powers to extend talks over Tehran’s contested nuclear activities through late November is a welcome development.... Iran would like a deal that can be sold to a hardline audience at home. Foregoing all the progress it has made so far would be an impossibility. Also, domestic nuclear capability has become a point of national pride. Both sides will have to work out a formula that will let Iranian leaders claim success while crippling Iran’s nuclear abilities to a point that would make a weapon very difficult to manufacture.”

Then there is the question of Iranian domestic politics, which is never too far below surface when it comes to the nuclear question. The new, smiling Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has invested much of his political capital in the finding of an acceptable solution. Moreover, the success of Rouhani’s economic reforms depends on the unfreezing of billions of U.S. dollars as well as a greater access to the international markets for Iranian exports, which is why The Daily Star’s Said Arjomand believes “If rapprochement with the West can be achieved, the removal of the international sanctions stemming from the nuclear program would give a tremendous boost to Rouhani’s economic policy....After a year in power, Rouhani’s program of economic development, environmental cleanup, and improved health care is proceeding smoothly and quietly. But, given the uncertainty of the domestic and international political context, there are no guarantees of success. Much depends on whether a nuclear deal with the international community is achieved in the coming months. The likelihood of that outcome has unexpectedly increased, owing to the common interest of Iran and the U.S. in coping with the collapse of Iraq.”

It is important, cautions Asharq Alawsat’s Zuhair Al-Harthi, that Iran shows greater transparency in dealing with its neighbors in the Gulf region, by making a good faith gesture and inviting the Gulf states to the negotiation table, along with the world powers: “Iran’s problem is that it is dealing with regional issues based on a sectarian vision and not from the perspective of a state. Therefore, it needs objective self-criticism in order to save itself and the region from the risks that surround it on all sides. There is no longer any room for ambiguity; this is, rather, a strategic necessity to preserve Gulf stability and security. With respect to Tehran’s insistence on continuing its nuclear program, the Gulf states are not interested in Iranian assurances as much as they are interested in seeing Iran take serious action, starting with guaranteeing the peaceful nature of the program. Thus, Tehran must demonstrate good intentions and build trust with neighboring countries by opening the door to Gulf states to join the negotiations with the P5+1 group, and keep them informed of all details.”

Finally, if the final goal is to come up with a solution that will prove long-lasting, then there is no substitute for a closer and warmer relationship between the two antagonists in the current situation, which is why the Khaleej Times editorial strongly urged the United States and Iranian leaders to come together: “What seems to be lacking, nonetheless, is the personal involvement of their respective leaderships in turning the tables. U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani have an opportunity in disaster to rub shoulders and agree on a new format of regional strategy while addressing the insurgency in Iraq, and at the same time ink a deal on nuclear guarantees. This is a moment of leadership and the four-month extension in talks brings another forum of interaction as the United Nations General Assembly meets in September. This time around rather than picking the phone, Obama — the Nobel Peace Prize laureate — should go for a tête-à-tête with Rohani. It is here that the diplomacy can come full circle along with a deal to usher in a new era in their estranged relationship. The hiatus should come to an end at the earliest.”


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