Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1216, (2 - 8 October 2014)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1216, (2 - 8 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Going down to the wire

US and Iranian negotiators on Iran’s nuclear file remain tight-lipped, with no guarantees of any deal being struck before time runs out 24 November, writes Camelia Entekhabifard from New York

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Well-tailored Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke eloquently during his recent trip to the United Nations in New York. However, his tenor was quite conservative and wasn’t expected of him at all.

Rouhani, the pragmatic president who was elected a year ago promising to bring change, especially in foreign policy and internal issues, seems different as only two months remain to reach a nuclear deal with Western powers.

In spite of his government making all efforts to reach a comprehensive deal by the deadline of 24 November, it appears that Rouhani and his negotiating team are also making themselves ready for failure too.

Rouhani diplomatically evaded questions about Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife who were arrested two months ago in Tehran and are being kept in custody without charge. He emphasised that Iran’s judiciary is independent and the case hasn’t been referred to court for judgement. At this critical time of the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), Rouhani needs the support of hardliners, no matter what will happen in the coming days.

Even Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, became mysteriously quiet, falling out of the media loop. Speculation is rife.

During the period of the interim deal, which was signed in Geneva almost 10 months ago with an expiry date of 20 July, both sides did everything in their power to narrow the gap between them. But Western countries seem to have lost some level of interest and there is no guarantee that the breakthrough spirit exhibited then will return.

Javad Zarif and his team did their best early Saturday morning of 19 July, the day before the interim deal expired, as they stood beside European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton in a joint statement, declaring: “We have made tangible progress on some of the issues. There are still significant gaps on some of the core issues which will require more time and effort.”

The agreement on the terms of the negotiations was extended to 24 November 2014. Iran agreed with the terms and the conditions and in return the P5+1 continued to suspend sanctions as agreed to under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), allowing Iran access to $2.8 billion in restricted assets.

Iranians expected negotiators to bargain the best deal and it seems that the government chose well in the appointment of Zarif as chief negotiator. But after a 10-year struggle with P5+1 over the nuclear file, the question is whether he can succeed in closing the file completely.

Apparently Iran’s demand to make its own fuel for the 1,000-megawatt Bushehr power plant faced resistance by Western negotiators. Russia, which built the nuclear reactor at the plant, has a 10-year contract to supply the fuel, starting 2011. In other words, for the next seven years, Iran should have no issue about fuel. But this was never really the question for Iranian negotiators.

Now Iran is talking its need to generate its own fuel after 2021, and for new power plants that are going to be built.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, at a press conference before leaving Vienna for Washington after three days of negotiations with Zarif, described the process as hard, calling Zarif a “tough negotiator”.

But during the10-day negotiations in New York in the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which wrapped up Friday, 26 September, not a word was spoken by Kerry or Zarif to the media. Perhaps in joint action negotiators have decided to ignore the media for their own sake.

President Rouhani even hid his plan of travelling to New York until three days before his departure, perhaps worried by how Iran’s hardliners may react. Now, Iran’s parliament is thanking the president for his strong presence and speeches in New York. Rouhani succeeded to please the conservatives and hardliners, no matter if he disappointed his supporters. Perhaps he thinks he has time to make it up to his supporters if he succeeds to reach a comprehensive deal. But despite all hopes, and considerable effort, neither Iranians nor the world can be assured that any such deal is at hand.

Certainly the extension wasn’t what Iranians were looking for. But the positive atmosphere and the extension show Iranians that their dreams of a better economy and international recognition for their nuclear programme are still possible.

Of course both sides have opponents who see the extension as a sign of trouble ahead. The hardliners in Iran, in particular, have been waiting for the talks to fall apart. This would open the way for their return to the forefront of Iranian politics.

To be sure, Iran is serious about securing the nation’s right to develop sources of nuclear energy. But the cultural habit of waiting until the last minute has played a role in prolonging the P5+1 negotiations. Waiting too long can backfire. Smart Iranians know the limits, and it seems Zarif is among this group.

Rouhani and his negotiating team left New York on Saturday, 27 September, without giving any date for the next round of talks, or showing any ray of hope regarding progress made.

But in Iranian culture, holding back until the last minute is a way of enhancing one’s luck, which may express the mysterious behaviour of the president and his nuclear team in recent days.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Monday, 29 September, said that the next round of the talks would be taking place in Europe within two weeks. But as for a comprehensive deal, we may only find out if it is on, or even off, with hours to spare until the deadline of 24 November.

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