Intensive negotiations take place in Vienna this week to complete the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ before the deadline of 24 November. In a rare case of international unity, the US, Russia, China and the EU have maintained a common line, because the nuclear issue is so critical to non-proliferation and regional peace, and because negotiators have separated the nuclear talks from the hotly controversial issues in Iran's Middle East regional relations.
There are four options now: breakdown and recriminations; an extension, with or without fresh agreements to limit or adapt some Iranian nuclear activities and to give more sanctions relief to Iran; a broad agreement in principle with a commitment to agree all technical details of implementation by a certain date; and a full agreement.
Neither side wants a breakdown. Setting the bar too high for a deal means a more extensive and less-well-monitored Iranian nuclear programme in future, more people-harming economic sanctions on Iran, a greater risk of proliferation and of illegal pre-emptive war, and the loss of a massive diplomatic opportunity to start winding down regional tensions and confronting security challenges collaboratively. Both sides appear committed to succeeding, for their own good reasons of national interest and domestic political advantage.
The risk, though is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei might conclude that the sanctions relief offered by the US in return for the compromises demanded of Iran is too little, and too uncertain given President Obama’s difficulties in Congress.
A full, detailed deal is also unlikely, as there is so little time left. Multiple attempts since September have failed to produce agreement on core compromises.
That leaves two options. One is an extension, with or without a limited interim agreement. But taking more time might encourage those opposed to concessions in the US and Iran to subvert the process. Congressional pressures for new sanctions have mounted since the US mid-term elections. Israel’s call for dismantling Iran’s enrichment capability is still influential in Washington. In Iran, there is still a school of thought that revolutionary defiance of the US is required, and that if no agreement is reached, sanctions would weaken over time, with Russian and Chinese help.
The final option is a political text that solves all the main issues but requires time for negotiation on how to implement it. Such a text would describe the nature and extent of Iran’s enrichment programme (both production and R and D), how it relates to present and future fuel needs for Russian-built power reactors, the duration of the agreement, how to resolve the outstanding suspicions of past weapons-relate research by Iran, and sanctions relief.
There is no doubt that good progress has been made in drafting the less-contentious parts of an agreement, including on verification and the Arak heavy water moderated reactor. It is likely that both sides are playing for a win. But they might have concluded that terms they could sell at home are unobtainable. If so, they may be manoeuvring to be well-placed with their domestic constituencies in the event of a failure.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has made a public commitment to securing a one year break-out time (defined as the time needed for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb). Iran may interpret this as ruling out the possibility both of retaining their many thousand first-generation centrifuges and of their installing smaller numbers of more advanced machines. If so, Khamenei may conclude that he is unable to be true to his undertaking not to surrender Iran’s nuclear progress and rights.
Conversely, the US might have concluded that Iran’s current insistence on retaining most of their existing enrichment capability makes it impossible to sell the deal to Congress and to Israel. The US’ reported offer to Iran of only staged and limited sanctions relief in return for concessions, and Iran’s negative public reaction to this, could therefore mean an end-game posited on the inevitability of a failure on 24 November and extension of the talks.
While backing the negotiators, Khamenei has indicated in the past that flexibility in the cause of defeating the enemy is acceptable. But on other occasions he has ordered no retreat. He will be given both pragmatic and hard-line advice respectively for and against the terms on offer by the end of the week. The pragmatists can win the argument only if Khamenei is persuaded that sanctions relief will be quick, substantial and beyond doubt. He could then see an agreement as a victory for Iran, together with the P5+1 offer to allow uranium enrichment to continue, and the recent Russian reactor building agreement.
The outcome of the negotiations will determine the direction of Iran’s domestic political life and the future of the centrist factions that currently back President Hassan Rouhani. In early 2016 they will face elections for the parliament and for the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for the choice of the successor to Iran’s ultimate decision-maker, Khamenei.
The outcome will also influence the course the economy takes. Even if the negotiations succeed, Iran’s economic path will be strewn with obstacles, including rampant unemployment, high costs and lack of competitiveness. If the nuclear negotiations fail definitively, even after extra time, Iran would face great uncertainty arising from additional sanctions, including a higher risk that discontent might eventually lead to political disturbances.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback