Better talk than walk

The extension of talks till June 30, 2015 is apt one that realists anticipated and believe is in the interest of a 'win-win' deal.

Those who believed that a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers was possible by November 24 were too optimistic; those who felt it was impossible were too pessimistic; in the end, the extension of talks till June 30, 2015 is apt – one that realists anticipated and believe is in the interest of a ‘win-win’ deal.

Any deal is rarely perfect. Even the 1919 Treaty of Versailles kept the wounds of World War I alive long enough to trigger the next in 1939. Deals are usually as good or bad as they get at that moment in history. And so it will be in the case of this deal too, when it happens eventually – the probability of which is higher than otherwise.

The fact that the negotiation will continue for another seven months keeps the West Asian region in better stead than it would have been had the talks been called off.

This was the second extension in talks aimed at resolving a 12-year-old dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that positions were becoming closer, US Secretary of State John Kerry said significant disagreements remained. A joint statement, however, said: “We remain convinced that, based on the progress made and on the new ideas which continue to be explored, there is a credible path through which a comprehensive solution can be reached.”

According to Western officials, an agreement on the substance of a final accord is possible by March, but reaching a consensus on the important technical details requires more time, hence the new deadline. The extension put off at least one immediate complication: dealing with an extra 1 million barrels per day of Iran’s oil exports, which would have become available with lifting of sanctions, causing further pressure on oil prices.

But this is a peanut issue in an otherwise large basket of stakes. Many, particularly Israel, have argued that no deal is better than other alternatives. This view is partly endorsed by some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which fear that a deal will have serious political consequences on the regional balance of power by making Iran a nuclear, thus a de jure, hegemon.

But the fact that leaders from some of the GCC countries were in Vienna as the talks were extended means that all the stakeholders were willing to alk the extra mile to achieve that elusive ‘good’ deal.

Though few, realists feel that progress has been made on important issues linked to the Fordow and Arak nuclear facilities, as well as the tricky issue of enrichment and the number of centrifuges. Gaps, however, remain on the question of sanctions.
Allaying Western fears

Under the 2013 interim deal, Tehran halted higher-level uranium enrichment in exchange for a limited easing of the financial and trade sanctions. Tehran insists that its nuclear programme is only for civilian energy and dismisses Western fears that it has a weaponisation agenda. The negotiation between Iran and the six powers – the United States, France, Germany, Russia, China and Britain – is about ensuring just that.

So far, both camps seem to believe that they have the upper hand in the negotiation. Iran believes that Western willingness to negotiate and the crises in West Asia have strengthened its position. Equally, the West is convinced that sanctions can extract greater concessions from Iran.

Each one is determined that the other should and will compromise on areas previously deemed non-negotiable. There are many ideological reasons to wish for failed negotiation, but there is no doubt about the enormous practical value in continued negotiation and a comprehensive deal.

First, for the GCC countries and the West, continued negotiation means that the International Atomic Energy Agency would be able to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme, which is progressing, and not retarding, even as talks continue (Russia has agreed to build a new generation of reactors in Iran.)

Second, a negotiated agreement would benefit Iran, the West, the GCC countries and the region as a whole, given the common interests in a stable Afghanistan and Iraq, a weakened Islamic State, a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis, and restoring order in Yemen. On IS, in particular, it is imperative that all of them stay on the same page.
Third, with just two years remaining in US President Barack Obama’s second term, his legacy hinges largely on resolving this vexed foreign and security policy issue, which the Republicans oppose. Fourth, same is the case for President Rouhani.

The nuclear resolution approach s what divides the moderates and conservatives and a deal is what Rouhani is betting on to get sanctions lifted, revive the Iranian economy, help moderates gain the advantage domestically and return Tehran to the international mainstream. Failure to achieve a breakthrough would strengthen conservatives who oppose external engagement, thereby intensifying the ongoing sectarian-linked political crises in West Asia.

Finally, from a GCC perspective, further negotiation (both on nuclear and US-Iran ties) provides additional time to prepare for either eventuality – political-security reconciliation or further alienation and steps thereafter.

So, while a comprehensive deal is the end, compromise – not consensus – is the means to achieve it.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)

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