Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1223, (27 November - 3 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

No deal, but no collapse

Failing to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear file by the 24 November deadline, Iran and the US agree to extend negotiations. Whether Iran is holding out, or the US remains unsatisfied, is open to question, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Al-Ahram Weekly

Politics was foremost in the last round of talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions in Vienna before the interim agreement between Western powers and Tehran expired 24 November. The highest diplomats on both sides — US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif — spent days wrestling over the Iran nuclear file.

Not just the United States. In the mix were another four Western powers and Russia, each of which have their own interests at stake in these talks.

In the end, no permanent deal could be struck. The period for negotiations, however, has been extended for another seven months to 1 July 2015, with the hope that a new approach will be found that could enable the sides to reach a solution by or ahead of the next deadline.

Predicting what will happen in coming months is difficult, if not impossible. But in the political sense, seven months is a long time. While Iranians were claiming victory, seeing the extension as part of a process towards clinching a good deal, from American point of view, “not any deal for the sake of a deal” was the outlook that prevailed. Thus the new extension could equally be seen as a rolling back on progress made amid clear difficulties between Iran and the United States.

The minimum expectation was to hear that a framework had been agreed regarding implementing the political and technical aspects of the agreement for another few months. The extension shows, rather, that the two major negotiators — Iran and the United States — failed to compromise, the extension emerging as the only solution to keep talks from collapsing entirely. Meanwhile, Iran takes a risk by extending talks rather than quickly reaching a deal, because international politics and political will can quickly change. Maintaining unity within the regime while marginalising those who do not support negotiations remains a challenge to future talks. Dire economic and political circumstances also played a key role in Iran accepting the US-proposed extension. Zarif said “we were here to make the deal,” adding in Vienna on 24 November, “we believe we will reach the final agreement as soon as possible, before seven months. We need some time to draft a political agreement.”

But not so many in Iran are thinking at this stage like Mr Zarif. Hope still exists, but people are asking whether, as the incoming US Congress begins its work 2 January, stacked with opponents to Obama, whether the task of reaching a deal, or simply remaining cordial with Iran, will not be harder next year than it was in 2014. Same on the Iranian side regarding those who are against a deal and any normalisation with the United States — these two sets of opponents can easily coordinate now, amid this unexpected seven-month extension.

For Obama, justifying a deal with Iran will surely be less easy. In Iran, the hardliners won’t sit back and watch Rouhani and Zarif maintain a free hand, not sharing details on secret talks they engaged in with the US administration. Still, it’s not clear to the media the exact issues of contention or difference between Iran and the United States that prevented a deal. The problem over the number of centrifuges and the percentage of uranium Iran can enrich are the main issues, but beyond that, the details of what the US had proposed, and the working action plan it has, haven’t been revealed to the media while all negotiators remain committed to strict secrecy on the details.

Indications are that the extension has more to do with politics than technical issues, with Zarif emphasising upon arrival to Vienna that “reaching the deal needs political will.”

The seven-month extension, according to Kerry and Zarif, is the maximum time each side has inferred it would take to settle the nuclear file and remaining disputes. Being optimistic, Zarif mentioned that within four months a comprehensive agreement could be reached. On the other side, Kerry said: “President Obama said the best way to do this (solving the Iran nuclear file) is diplomacy to reach comprehensive deal. It’s tough and stays tough.”

Iran, meanwhile, has gone further in underlining that it does not seek nuclear weapons. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa (religious edict) banning nuclear weapons totally, in order to support Iran’s claim. But Kerry responded, 24 November in Vienna: “This agreement is not based on trust. It’s based on verification.”

In short, the United States and world powers and their allies remain unsatisfied with Iran’s claim to an exclusively peaceful nuclear programme. Trust lacking, more work is needed.

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