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If Iran and World Powers Want a Deal, What's Causing the Delay?

No one wanted to go home from the Geneva nuclear talks empty-handed, least of all the Iranians.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It seemed for a moment as if the foreign ministers of the P5+1 group and Iran were about to sign an agreement. Iranian newspapers also believed that the talks were on the verge of a breakthrough. In optimistic articles, they detailed the parties’ positions without the pessimism that had accompanied the previous generation of negotiations. Very carefully, working as they do under the regime’s monitoring and instructions, they issued no criticism of the West, and nor did they point any blaming fingers (yet) – not in the direction of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is in charge of the Iranian delegation to the talks, nor at the Western delegates. The arrival in Geneva of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was also perceived as a signal that an agreement was about to be signed.

Iran's determination to reach an agreement during this round of negotiations was very evident in the preliminary pronouncements by Zarif, who indicated he saw no reason to drag the talks into another round. On the contrary, the alacrity - there are those who would say haste - to reach a first-stage agreement now is an integral part of the Iranian team’s desire to bring home an achievement, strengthen Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s position and take advantage of the patience being exhibited so far by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“When there is positive momentum, one should exploit it,” wrote one commentator on an Iranian website. This momentum has been generated primarily by Iran, which from the start has been pushing to convene the rounds of talks over an abbreviated time period - in marked contrast with the previous regime, which saw dragging things out as an advantage.

But momentum alone will not satisfy Iran if the negotiating team doesn’t return with a result that can be viewed as a victory. Rohani’s magic formula – that both sides need to be seen as winners - cannot exist if the first agreement involves a significant Iranian concession relative to what it gets from the West. Iran must make sure that its “red line” - the complete halting of uranium enrichment - is not crossed. Yielding on enrichment to 20 percent, and the conversion of the already enriched material in its possession into nuclear fuel, is already considered by Tehran to be a significant contribution that requires proper compensation.

It is still unclear exactly what is delaying the signing of the agreement, but it could be that the Western countries, especially France, are frightened of what they are planning to offer Iran - particularly the fact that, under the agreement, the cancellation of some sanctions is to be irreversible. In contrast, Iran is seeking to reach an outline of a final agreement that will go into effect after a six-month trial period. It claims there is no reason not to discuss the next stage during this trial period.

According to diplomatic sources, it appears that the question of inspecting the enrichment sites is reaching a positive conclusion, and it’s possible that on Monday an agreement will be signed between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose head is expected to visit Tehran. Iran has already given the IAEA a draft agreement that includes concrete details and, according to Reza Najafi, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, the agreement is about to be signed.

What is still in dispute is the nuclear fuel production facility in Arak, which is due to be completed next year and whose construction the Western countries want halted. Iranian officials have also referred to this facility as a “red line” that it will not cross. But it’s possible that Tehran may consent to stopping construction during the second stage of negotiations, in which Iran will demand a total removal of all economic sanctions.

Agreeing to halt construction now is liable to be viewed in Tehran as too deep a concession, and as the loss of an important bargaining chip for the next round. Such a concession can’t be buried in the clauses of an agreement, and the criticism of the negotiating team and Rohani that would likely ensue may undermine their ability to conduct effective negotiations during the next stages.

On the other hand, the Western powers, particularly the United States, do not want to look like "suckers" (in the words of the French foreign minister), just as Iran cannot allow itself to look like it’s been stripped of most of its strategic assets. If fear of looking gullible is the reason for the delay, and not the substance of the issue, it can be overcome.

Enormous diplomatic efforts, and particularly PR efforts, will be required to overcome the obstacle posed by the Arak facility, and another round of talks might be required before the signing of the first-stage agreement. However, unlike in past negotiations, the Iranians aren’t getting up and stomping out in anger. Instead, they are treading carefully on the narrow bridge, together with the Western delegates.

This is a familiar and nerve-racking stage in all negotiations, but this time it is clear to both parties that there’s no choice but to make a deal. There is concern that going home to prepare for another round of talks could endanger the entire process.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, gestures next to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at the end of three days of talks on Iran's nuclear program, Nov. 10, 2013 in Geneva.Credit: AFP

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