Buying time

The extension of talks over Iran’s nuclear programme leaves the world guessing about the chances for success. Published in The Gulf, August 2014

After six months of talks, Iran and the six countries sitting across it at the negotiating table have bought themselves a little more time. The decision to extend talks for four months beyond the 20 July deadline was not a surprise. In the lead-up to it the indications coming out of Vienna, where the talks were being held, were that progress had been made but major differences remained.

The question now is whether there has been enough progress to offer hope that a comprehensive deal can be struck before the new deadline of 24 November. The US - one of six countries alongside China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK that make up the P5+1 negotiating group - seems to think it is at least possible.

US secretary of state John Kerry summed up the situation on 18 July by saying “We have made tangible progress in our comprehensive negotiations, but there are very real gaps in some areas … The very real prospect of reaching a good agreement that achieves our objectives necessitates that we seek more time.”

Seeking to characterise those gaps, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, described them as “substantial” while Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, called them “drastic”. Whatever the words chosen, the situation appears finely balanced.

On the plus side Iran has complied with all the commitments it made last November when it signed the interim deal. Among other things, it has neutralised its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium, capped its stockpile of five per cent enriched uranium and provided inspectors with all the promised access to its facilities.

Over the past few months, other likely elements of a deal have been taking shape. Iran appears willing to turn its Fordow enrichment facility into a research and development plant and to redesign the research reactor at Arak so it produces far less plutonium. It has also acknowledged that the sanctions will only be scaled back gradually.

On the other hand, the two sides appear as far apart as ever on the critical issue of the number of centrifuges Iran should have. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei demanded, in a speech on 7 July, that his country should be allowed 190,000 separative work units (SWUs), a proxy for the number of centrifuges. “This is the definite need of the country,” he said. “And the needs of the country should be met.”

Those numbers are so far beyond what the P5+1 group is willing to countenance that it could undermine all hope for a deal.

For Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, the prospects appear bleak. “I don’t see a basis for a deal,” he says. “If we couldn’t get it by now I don’t see how we can get it in four months, because of this basic difference over the number of centrifuges.”

A second bone of contention is how long the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment capacity will be maintained once a deal has been struck. The P5+1 group are pushing for somewhere between 10 and 20 years, while Tehran would prefer something closer to five years.

Despite this and other differences, some are optimistic that a solution is possible. “I’m hopeful we will get a deal,” says Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the IISS. “What has changed in these negotiations is not so much what the P5+1 and Iran want but how badly both sides want a solution. I think both sides are painfully aware of the downsides of not coming to an agreement. Both sides have shown up until now enough flexibility to leave the option open to continue making compromises.”

Indeed further compromises were made when the talks were extended. Iran has agreed to take the 20 per cent enriched uranium that has already been oxidised and convert it into fuel for the Tehran research reactor, which makes it even harder to use in any weapons. In return the existing sanctions relief will continue and Iran will be given access to $700 million a month from restricted bank accounts.

The apparent willingness of both sides to make concessions leads others to think a deal could yet be reached on the enrichment issue. If that is done, then the other pieces should fall into place.

“I think there are options for squaring the circle,” says Ali Vaez, senior analyst for Iran at the Brussels-headquartered International Crisis Group. “The reality is if you look at the approach that both sides have adopted they’re actually not that different. They both agree that there needs to be an initial cap on the number of centrifuges and that cap at some point will come up. The question is where do you draw the initial line and how do you draw the curve going from point A to point B.” If they can come to an agreement, a potentially harder task could be selling any deal to the public and sceptics back home. Esfandiary suggests that, for Tehran at least, that process needs to start soon.

“There’s really not much planning going into just managing the population’s expectations of what a final deal will mean,” she says. “Many in Iran believe that sanctions relief will be immediate and its effect will be felt immediately on the economy. So it’s quite important for the administration to use these next four months to explain that this is unlikely to happen.”

Selling any deal to the US public and to president Barack Obama’s critics in Congress will be just as challenging. The US is due to hold Congressional elections on 4 November in which the Republican Party could take control of the Senate, to add to its hold on the House of Representatives. If a deal can be struck between Iran and the P5+1 group, it is in everyone’s interests to ensure it happens before then.

“My sense is that both sides are genuinely committed to try to achieve a solution,” says Robert Einhorn, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and a former US state department advisor on non-proliferation. “Even with the four additional months of extra time it’s going to be a huge challenge. One reason is that on both sides there are very strong domestic critics. Obama said several months ago that he though the chances of an agreement are about 50/50. I say that’s about right.”