Who's Who in the Iran Talks and What Do They Want?

Russia and China are backing Iran, but France is playing hardball; meanwhile, the EU is losing its standing to the U.S. – a look at the parties involved in nuclear talks and their conflicting interests.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Representatives of Iran, EU, world powers in Lausanne for talks, April 2, 2015.
Representatives of Iran, EU, world powers in Lausanne for talks, April 2, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

At the nuclear talks taking place in Vienna, which were extended once again Tuesday, the interests of the two main parties – the U.S. and Iran – are clear and known. But what about the other parties involved?

Any one could explain that the Obama administration has decided to resolved its longstanding conflict with Iran in the hopes of turning it into its regional ally in the fight against ISIS and as a counterweight to Sunni Gulf states. Iran for its part is trying to hold on to as much of its nuclear program (and national pride) as possible while working to end its prolonged international isolation – especially the sanctions crippling its oil-based economy. However, the talks also include a number of other nations and organizations.

Tuesday's announcement that talks were being extended beyond their July 7 deadline came after two morning meeting of a forum of foreign ministers representing the six world powers, sans Iran's Foreign Minister Javed Zarif. This indicates that internal disagreements still plague the diplomatic sextet - comprising the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, and known collectivity as the P5+1 – and are preventing them from reaching a final deal with Iran.  

Here's a look at the different parties involved and their different interests:

Russia

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (Reuters)

Putin's Kremlin is considered Iran's closest and most trusted ally in the international arena. The Russians tried in the past to block some of the blow of the international sanctions imposed on Iran and are considered to have the most reconciliatory attitude towards Tehran in the talks.

The Russians and the Iranians have a shared interest in the Middle East in the form of Bashar Assad's continued control over Syria. The Russians also want to maintain their standing as an alternative to the American hegemony which has ruled supreme in the international arena since the USSR dissolved.

France

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. (Reuters)

The French have taken on the role of the 'bad cop' in talks, serving as the polar opposite of the Russians, and causing talks to be extended as they refuses to back down from harsh demands from Teheran – event on issues that the Americans are willing to compromise over.

The bad blood between Iran and France go back to the days following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, and in a number of business disputes the French think led to Iranian-backed terror attacks on its interests.  The French also have strong and historic strategic ties with moderate Sunni states in the Gulf and Christians in Lebanon – both share a common enemy in Syria and Hezbollah.

China

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. (AP)

In light of their geographic distance from the region and low profile in the international arena, the Chinese are playing a relatively minor role in the talks, usually joining sides with the Russian. Nonetheless, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made a special effort to join talks during critical stages, indicating the Chinese's desire to increase their prominence in the international arena.

As far as their interests are concerned, the Chinese have increased their presence in the region, buying up Saudi oil and investing in Israeli technology – two parties who view the nuclear deal with Iran with increasing concern. Nonetheless, pressure from Israel and the Saudis has done little to break the Chinese-Russian axis in talks and it is unlike this will change – especially in light of China's economic interest in seeing the Iran oil market open up to exports again.

Germany

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. (AP)

Germany enjoys a unique status in talks: It is the only member of the talks which is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and, more importantly, it is the only nation which enjoys the full trust of both Teheran and Jerusalem. As the strongest force in the EU, Germany has a pivotal role in mediating between the sides and has ferried messages between the parties when talks hit a rough spot and were nearing a crisis.

Britain

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. (Reuters)

Out of all the world powers represented at the talks, Britain is playing the least significant role in talks. Since his reelection, Prime Minister David Cameron has focused all of his foreign policy efforts on improving the UK's standing within the EU ahead of a referendum on Britain's membership within the European political bloc. In light of this, Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond – considered a friend in Jerusalem – has been reluctant to voice his opinions so as not to ruffle any feathers and create any unnecessary tensions within the bloc. His policy, a British official said, is "to automatically agree with whatever the Americans and Germans are saying."

European Union

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. (Reuters)

In the previous rounds of talks, which ended in November 2013 with an interim agreement with Iran, the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton played a driving force and won international acclaim for bridging the two sides together to reach a comprehensive deal. Her replacement, Federica Mogherini, has played a less significant role, being overshadowed by the Americans who have taken the reigns during this round of negotiations, no longer in need of mediators to interlock with Iran. The economic crisis plaguing the EU has also undermined the top diplomat's ability to negotiate, but Mogherini is determined to see the deal through and improve her international standing.

International Atomic Energy Agency

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. (Reuters)

The IAEA is one of the UN's most respected professional bodies, a status which has only been enhanced under the tenure of its current chairman Yukiya Amano. In recent years, cooperation between IAEA and Israel has increased, both publically and behind the scenes. The IAEA has been a strong force in demanding clearer oversight on Iran and increased access to its nuclear sites. The more the IAEA is involved in talks the happier Jerusalem will be. Moreover, once the deal is reached, the IAEA stands to gain hundreds of new positions and tens of millions of dollars to its annual budget.

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