Iran Nuclear Talks: The Beginning of the Endgame?
Iran Nuclear Talks: The Beginning of the Endgame?
Iranian President Raisi’s Sudden Death and the ICC Case Against Israeli and Hamas Leaders
Iranian President Raisi’s Sudden Death and the ICC Case Against Israeli and Hamas Leaders
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 10 minutes

Iran Nuclear Talks: The Beginning of the Endgame?

In the following Q and A, Crisis Group Senior Iran Analyst Ali Vaez discusses what the new deadline means and how the talks might move forward.

After a year of negotiations, the parties to the Iran nuclear talks failed to meet their deadline of 24 November. Nonetheless the talks will continue, with the goal of reaching a political agreement by 1 March 2015 and a comprehensive agreement, including an implementation plan, by 1 July 2015 (see Crisis Group’s new report Iran Nuclear Talks: The Fog Recedes).

There’s much disappointment about the failure to agree a deal that would solve Iran’s differences with the international community over its nuclear program. Are we better off than when these intense talks began 12 months ago, or not?

Ali: Yes, of course we’re better off. Going through the 11th hour enabled both sides to gain a better understanding of each other’s real positions. It wasn’t clear until the very end which were real red lines, and which were artificial, maximalist ones. Going forward, they won’t need so much brinksmanship. They can now discern each other’s core requirements, where they really can’t move, and issues where there is a grey area in which they can manoeuvre.

What’s the rationale for having such a long extension of the talks – until 1 July 2015?

Each time you extend the talks you have to pay a political price for it, so they thought it was safer to go with a longer extension with the aim of reaching a deal as soon as possible. Also renewing it soon after the new U.S. Congress comes into office in January will be extremely difficult. Finally, there is the UN’s Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May 2015; all of the key negotiators and experts will be extremely busy with that, which is held only every five years. Add to it Christmas and Iranian New Year holidays, and you’ll see that it actually is not that long.

Is it going to be an easy ride?

No. They have a very limited time to move this process forward without having to fight with the new Republican-dominated Senate from January onwards. Congress may want to impose new sanctions, which would be a real poison pill for the talks. But now that positions are clear, they can focus on solutions and the conceptual problems that remain.

These talks have been the most intensive between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Is the process actually beneficial just in itself?

Without a doubt. The fact that they are on speaking terms has already resulted in the parties being able to contain some of the tensions in the Middle East. And now they know each other personally and better understand each others’ positions, views, and domestic political constraints. A lot of personal trust has been built up, which is important if you take into account the great wall of mistrust between the two states.

How will the next months differ from the last twelve months?

A key issue is the balance between bilateral U.S.-Iran discussions and multilateral ones. In Geneva last year we got an interim agreement in three months because the U.S. and Iran did their homework in Oman, in secret negotiations. They then took that to the multilateral framework in Vienna, despite a little bump here and there, for instance the French being unhappy thinking that the Americans worked behind their backs. Now we’ve had a year of talks just to get an understanding of where we are standing. The P5+1/EU3+3 negotiators wanted everybody on the same page. Perhaps it could have gone faster and precious time could have been saved. To speed things up, Crisis Group thinks we need to go back to the Geneva process, have the U.S. and Iran (as the main stakeholders in the nuclear talks and rivals for influence in the Middle East) hammer out their problems together, then take it back to the group and get everybody on board.

Will the new period be affected by any new domestic constraints in Tehran or Washington?

The Iranian negotiators have an easier time managing this than the Americans. The domestic Iranian consensus that has taken shape around the necessity of resolving the nuclear issue is still there. The newspapers, the officials, have all expressed support of the negotiating team. Perhaps even more important, they have a common vision of their Plan B: throwing the blame onto the Americans in order to try to erode the sanctions, which requires that they look reasonable and flexible in the talks. It’s very different for the U.S. side. Congress has some powerful voices already advocating for more pressure, saying that Iran will not respond to pressure, but will respond to huge pressure. The Obama administration will probably be able to hold back the current lame-duck Congress from imposing new sanctions, but as of next year when the Republican-dominated Senate is seated, this will become extremely difficult. That’s why the wild card is Washington, not Tehran.

What kind of poison pill would new sanctions be for the nuclear talks?

Any additional sanctions would kill the process. The Iranians would be seen domestically as negotiating under duress. This also undermines the Geneva agreement (the Joint Plan of Action) that requires basically a freeze-for-freeze: both sides suspend their actions until they reach a comprehensive solution. It can also weaken the P5+1/EU3+3’s unity, as Russia and China and even the Europeans are unlikely to welcome new sanctions at this time.

What difference would it make if the talks did just break down?

The fact that Iran’s nuclear program is currently under rigorous inspection, with many elements frozen, makes the status quo acceptable even for critics as vociferous as the Israelis. The Israelis welcomed the extension because they thought it was better than rushing to a bad deal. From the Iranian perspective, the current situation is not perfect, but preferable to living under escalating sanctions. But if the process falls apart, politicians who have made tremendous investments in this will be discredited, and we will get into another cycle of escalation that will be extremely difficult to fine-tune and is prone to spiralling out of control. That’s the last thing anyone needs in a region that is already in flames.

Are the nuclear talks connected to what’s happening in Syria, Iraq and the Gulf?

There is no direct linkage, but nothing happens in a vacuum. Regional developments affect the atmosphere in the talks. At times, the Iranians feel more confident because they have been able to stabilise Iraq or they are gaining an upper hand in Syria, at other times they might feel weaker because the Saudis are bombing Syria or the price of oil is plummeting. A new black swan in the region, such as a direct confrontation between the Americans and the Syrian regime, could definitely have a very adverse effect. But for now, sorting out conceptual differences between the U.S. and Iran is more important for the future of the nuclear talks than the regional dynamics.

What conceptual changes do you think would make a new U.S.-Iran engagement produce results?

The Iranians have two red lines. They want to have the right to industrial-scale nuclear enrichment, since they didn’t invest so much money, energy and national pride just to be left with a token enrichment program. Secondly, they want sanctions lifted, not just suspended. The Americans too have two redlines: They want a breakout time (amount of time needed to enrich enough uranium for one weapon) of one year, which requires rolling back Iran’s program to a token one for a long period of time. Secondly, sanctions are much more difficult to turn on and off than centrifuges, and the U.S. doesn’t want to lose leverage by loosening them too quickly. It says it first wants to see trust build up in Iran’s commitment to any deal. The trouble is that these red lines are on the same issues – enrichment and sanctions – and are locked in opposition to each other.

Is this all about mistrust?

In a way.  Both sides believe that they cannot trust the other when it comes to national interests – so nobody wants to give up their leverage until they have secured them. The Iranians feel that they have been asked to put all of their cards on the table at the beginning, convert facilities, roll back the nuclear program, and send their stockpile of enriched material abroad. In return they’re only being offered suspension of sanctions, which could be reversed at the stroke of a pen.

On the other hand, the U.S. and its allies are afraid that the next Iranian supreme leader or president could renege on Iran’s promises and at that point they’ll be left empty handed and with no leverage to deter Iran from taking such action. Both sides’ fears are probably exaggerated, but they are a fact of life in these talks.


What is it like to be as close to these negotiations as you have been? What’s it like to be in that hotel?

At a human level it’s very interesting to watch the evolution of these talks. Slightly more than a year ago, it was impossible to imagine that the parties would mingle with each other in such a relaxed manner and would call each other “Hey Bob” and “Hey Abbas”. They bump into each other at the breakfast buffet and joke about the watery scrambled eggs or the giant chocolate croissants. Obviously the Iranians avoid pork and alcohol, but they share everything else. There may not be trust at the political level but there now is significant trust at a personal level. They’ve spent so many hours with each other that now they are intimately familiar with one another’s body language and mood. In the last days in Vienna, even the U.S. and Iranian foreign ministers were meeting alone, as they no longer felt the need for the EU mediator.

And it’s a lot of people! Senior officials, negotiators, technical experts, mediators, hacks, analysts, journalists, and curious bystanders mingle in the lobby. You see bilateral discussions happening on the sidelines, but with all kinds of people walking around, people have to be careful what they say and where they say it. Not much leaks out of these confidential talks and people are hungry for some news other than the schedule of the meetings. Speculation is rife and much of it wrong. If a negotiator looks like he’s storming out of the room to the hotel’s bar, people interpret it as a sign of obstacles in the talks. If people come out chuckling, they think a deal is at hand.

Are there a lot of meetings deep into the night? 

It’s a very intense, exhaustive and exhausting process. Meetings often continue after dinner and start early in the morning. There are in addition to the negotiations a lot of internal coordination meetings and briefings with the press. One night I saw a senior Iranian negotiator walking from the negotiations venue back to the hotel. As he was walking in he was surrounded by Iranian journalists bombarding him with questions. This was at one in the morning, but he patiently responded to those questions. Then he took a few steps forward and he was surrounded by journalists working for Western outlets who in normal circumstances would never be able to get an interview with an Iranian official. But he unwearyingly responded to their questions too. This went on until 3am. It is as if everyone is on steroids.

Is this what makes you feel that progress is being made? 

Yes and no. Things have certainly changed, but is it irreversible change? It’s hard to say. In the beginning, it was very difficult for the Iranians and Americans to break the ice, it was difficult for the two sides to understand and read each other and to know if things that were being said and the positions that were being taken were real or just a negotiating tactic. Now we’ve entered a stage in which, in an unconscious way maybe, there has been some kind of narrow normalisation in the relations. This is not only between Iran and the West, but also among Iranians who cover the talks. Journalists who used to demonise each other a year and a half ago have now spent so much time with each other that they understand that the other side is also human, has questions, fears, and hopes. It was amazing in the journalists’ tent: reporters who work for exiled Iranian media were also hoping that a deal would be reached, even though a deal would at the end of the day strengthen the Iranian government of whom they are critical. But they all have families, and they have the same feelings as the journalists who were part of the Iranian delegation. They wanted this to get resolved.

The same applies to Iranian and Western negotiators, who share a feeling that the process should not be allowed to collapse after so much time, so much effort, and so much progress. And this I think is the main difference when you compare this process to other never-ending processes like the Middle East peace process, or maybe Cyprus talks. The amount of political will to solve the nuclear issue through negotiation is incomparable with anything else out there I’ve seen. All of this doesn’t mean that there will be a deal, but it’d be a mistake to overstate the problems and overlook the progress.

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