The optimism that accompanied deliberations in Vienna during the early days of talks on a nuclear agreement with Iran was based on two operating assumptions.
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The first assumed that Iran urgently needed an agreement, to extract itself from the economic disaster it was in and to place practical content into the economic euphoria that had started to grip the country as it signed a series of trade and investment agreements with several countries and dozens of Western companies.
The second assumption was that the United States needed a quick agreement because it needed Iran’s help in the war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), but also because a Republican-controlled Congress was more likely to thwart a deal.
Both these assumptions are still valid, but it seems the progress made on substantive issues – like mechanisms for inspecting the nuclear installations, setting the uranium enrichment threshold at 5 percent, and the conversion of the heavy-water facility to one that cannot produce uranium – served as the basis for extending the talks in two phases, through next June.
What prevented a final deal on Monday – those “significant gaps” referred to by U.S. President Barack Obama – relate primarily to the political ability of the two parties to sell the agreement at home. Thus, for example, Iran is demanding that all the sanctions, both American and international, be halted immediately upon signing the agreement – or, at most, six months to a year after it is signed. The United States and France are demanding a longer period, between three and five years (some say even 10 years), until the sanctions are fully removed.
At the same time, the West is demanding a significant reduction in the number of centrifuges – particularly newer centrifuges – that Iran can operate. Iran wants to retain some 9,000 centrifuges, which is close to the number it has today, compared to the 4,000 centrifuges the West wants, of which most must be of an earlier vintage.
These are not merely technical disputes. Without some immediate accomplishment, like the removal of sanctions, the Iranian regime would have been perceived by its conservative critics as having returned empty-handed at best, or having capitulated to the West, at worst. Just as there are many in the United States and Israel who believe that no agreement is better than a bad agreement, so it is in Iran, where putting off the removal of sanctions would be seen as giving in for nothing.
This is also the difficulty faced by the U.S. administration. Permitting Iran to operate too large a number of centrifuges could never be sold to Congress as an achievement, even if that threshold were linked to an invasive and intense inspection program.
But the administration doesn’t only have to appease Congress. Israel is an ally whose positions must be taken into account – if not for diplomatic reasons, then for domestic political reasons. Saudi Arabia, an even more important ally in the region, is concerned not just with the possibility that Iran will have nuclear weapons, but that an agreement with Iran – and a change in the way the United States relates to it – will shake up the strategic status quo in which Saudi Arabia has primacy. This is why Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal came to Vienna on Sunday to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and express his concerns.
Given these political obstacles, one wonders how extending the talks can bridge these gaps. The answer probably lies in the dynamics that will develop over the next seven months, and the public relations that will accompany the negotiations and Iran during this period. One cannot ignore the fact that the negotiations were an important, and even historic, turning point, serving as a platform for personal meetings between the U.S. secretary of state and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Personal connections have great influence during negotiations and can often be crucial to the results.
Moreover, the dialogue with the United States has become an accepted reality in Iran after its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave it his stamp of approval. During the year that has passed since the signing of the interim agreement in November 2013, Iran has honored its terms, submitting itself to inspection, and is prepared to adhere to the terms of that agreement in the coming months.
Thus, even in the absence of a final agreement, this past year has served as a confidence-building period that will give both Iran and the United States ammunition to justify more flexibility later.
At the same time, Iran isn’t the only one being tested. If the U.S. Congress avoids imposing more sanctions in the coming months, that could help convince the Iranians that the West’s intentions are sincere and blunt the influence of the conservatives.