Analysis |

Iran Talks: The First Round or the Last?

Iran is in dire need of an agreement, both for the reduction of sanctions and to begin to relieve public pressure on the government.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a very valuable Iranian partner. Like Netanyahu, Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, does not believe the Americans when they say that the military option is still on the table. “They’re afraid to attack Iran more than any other state, and it’s not even a possibility; but they keep saying so for political reasons,” Jafari said two days ago.

Jafari is not the only Iranian military commander who feels this way. Iranian army officials and even the defense minister, a Rohani appointee, have made similar remarks. Indeed, the Iranians’ working assumption, as they arrive in Geneva on Wednesday for what could be the last round of talks before an agreement, is that the moment such a deal is forged, the military option will be stricken from both official and public discourse.

Iran aspired to more than that. In the past, it demanded explicit American guarantees against an attack as a condition for willingness to restrict uranium enrichment, but that demand was rejected by then-President Bush. Now it seems that Iran will be satisfied with an understanding that the military option will cease to exist.

On the other hand, it is still not clear what the Iranians intend to propose, even after a week of exchanges with the Western powers. They might commit to stopping all activity at the Fordo facility, ceasing construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak or to a possible nuclear inspection framework. Judging by the optimistic remarks made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, an agreement could be reached within the next two days. Zarif has also said that “anything’s possible,” meaning, the talks could fall through, as well.

Iran is in dire need of an agreement, not only for the easing of the sanctions it would entail but also because an agreement would grant Iran a certificate of approval, marking it as a serious, committed state that can be trusted to enter into future agreements as well. Such a status has the potential to kick-off a wave of investment, with investors vying to be first in line to sign future agreements to build industrial infrastructure, oil refineries or just purchase oil.

Even if such deals are not on the cards at this point, an agreement would grant Iran the future opportunity to choose the companies that would be allowed to compete for government contracts and the billions that come with them.

An agreement could create a new atmosphere in Iran. It could help to reduce the opposition to the government from both sides, liberal and conservative, and strengthen both Rohani and Khamenei. It would also signal to the Iranian public that life will improve in the foreseeable future. Those assumptions are also shared by the Western powers, which are demanding Iranian guarantees that it is not simply buying time to continue enriching uranium.

Iran, the Western states, and Israel are all troubled by the uncertainty surrounding the situation. The outcome of such an agreement could indeed be negative, and the West is concerned that it might pass the point of no return, after which the wall of sanctions could crack, or even crumble. Both sides have the same fear. Israel and the West are eagerly waiting to see not only how Iran keeps its part of the bargain regarding the nuclear program, but also how it leverages the easing of sanctions and how they are presented to the public - as well as the Iranian public’s reaction.

According to the basics of the agreement, which were released before the current round of talks, the goal is to create a situation in which both sides, Iran and the West, will have mutual interest and motivation in proceeding to the next step, after the first test of faith. Iran made it clear that it’s goal is to reach a final agreement within six months to a year. The West is not opposed to such a timetable, and it just might happen that agreement is signed this week that will set a timetable for the next stage, the foundations of which were already discussed during the previous round of talks.

Iran's President Hassan Rohani walks with delegates after speaking in a High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament during the 68th United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 26, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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