Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement with Iran: One Month Endgame

30 Jun, 2014    ·   4532

Ayesha Khanyari analyses the major impediments that threaten to affect the course of the negotiations

Representatives from the P5+1 will meet their Iranian counterparts in Vienna on 2 July 2014 to continue talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme. Earlier, senior diplomats from both sides met in Brussels on 26 June 2014 for “an intense day of preparation” for the upcoming talks with Iran.

The stakes are high as the 20 July 2014 deadline approaches for the expiration of the interim agreement that was signed between the two sides. While the countdown begins, there are key issues that remain unresolved. At this point in time, there are major external impediments that are likely to affect the course of the negotiations in the days ahead.

Crisis in Iraq: Implications for Iran-P5+1 Negotiations
The deadline for the nuclear agreement looms against the backdrop of the worsening security situation in Iraq and Syria. Oddly enough, the US and Iran find themselves on the same side of the conflict. The US does not want to be drawn into a regional sectarian battleground against Iran.

The US faces a huge dilemma in dealing with the Iraq crisis, leaving the Obama administration with two policy options. The US can either pressurise the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a more representative government in order to heal the rifts which are exploited by the insurgents, or provide military assistance without waiting for these political changes to come about.

However, the outreach to Iran on a possible common security strategy for containing the Iraq crisis was not openly welcomed by Tehran. Iranian officials are sending mixed signals on cooperating with Washington on the Iraq crisis.

Complicating the picture further are the parallel talks between Iran and the P5+1. American officials insist that the two issues should be kept separate. However, they fear that Iran might use the situation to extract concessions in the upcoming negotiations on its nuclear programme.

Will Russia Exploit this Opportunity?
As tensions between the US and Russia mount over the crisis in Crimea, concerns have emerged about the potential fall-out on areas of cooperation between the two world powers. Russia might link the Crimean issue as part of its own diplomatic leverage with the US and the European Union, the precipitant being President Obama's announcement of new sanctions that were intended to provide broad authority for penalising key areas of the Russian economy, if and as the conflict over Crimea escalated. In his recent statement, Russia’s delegate to the Iran talks, Sergei A Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, was quoted as saying, “We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals but if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well.”

Any assessment of the recent history of both Russia and Iran highlights that anything is possible. Though retaliatory measures were not mentioned, it would not be surprising to see Russia reviving steps for the delayed oil-for-goods barter deal with the Iranians. The deal would enable Iran to sell more oil to Russia, undercutting the pressure exerted by Western sanctions. On the contrary, it is also possible that Russia would not seek to exploit the opportunity; it would rather comply with the other powers and preserve cooperation on the Iranian nuclear file.

Will Catherine Ashton’s Exit Hinder Diplomacy?
The end of the mandate for European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was the prime coordinator of the negotiations, raises doubts about the future of the nuclear talks. At the end, it will be Iran and the major powers who will determine if a deal is finalised. However, Ashton’s shepherding of the entire process since 2010 is commendable. Her upcoming departure could complicate diplomacy at a critical time exposing the talks to further risks.

Given the sensitivity of the talks, constant concerns raised, and deep fissures between the two sides, delays are possible. A further delay would mean a new EU foreign policy chief taking charge, someone with less expertise on the issue or rapport with the Iranians. While it might appear to be a small matter in an incredibly complex pool of other issues, nonetheless, personalities matter. Ashton’s departure from the scene would certainly impair the momentum of the talks.

A nuclear deal with Iran is certainly in Europe’s interest. Apart from reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation, it could enhance economic ties with Iran. The EU could also work towards engaging Tehran on regional security threats like Syria and Iraq and combating insurgent groups like al Qaeda. Therefore, in the upcoming negotiations, it is also in Europe’s interest to maintain the momentum and keep the door open to diplomacy to finalise a comprehensive deal with Iran.