World leaders have hailed progress in the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear future after a deadline for agreement was extended by seven months, even as a Twitter account associated with the country's Supreme Leader mocked the impotence of "arrogant" powers.
The participants — Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, UK, Russia, China, and France — plus Germany (known collectively as the G5+1) — announced on Monday night that they had agreed to continue negotiations after failing to reach a deal after five days of discussions in Vienna, Austria. They will now attempt to outline a deal by March and reach a technical accord by July 1.
The discussions are focused on Iran's uranium enrichment program, which Tehran says is needed to generate electricity and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but that the G5+1 is concerned could be an attempt to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
In exchange for quantifiable limits and checks on its enrichment program, Iran is seeking a lightening of the UN, US, and EU sanctions that have crippled its energy and financial sectors, as well as its broader economy.
Participants insisted that progress had been made following the deadline extension announcement. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that he hoped that a deal could finally be reached by July. "This path of negotiation will reach a final agreement," he said from the capital, Tehran, in a televised address translated by AFP. "Most of the gaps have been removed."
France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told France Inter radio that talks had been "pretty positive" and that the two sides had moved towards agreement on limiting Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Vienna on Monday night that "real and substantial progress" had been made and "new ideas" had surfaced, but cautioned that future negotiations would not be easy. "They [the talks] are tough. They have been tough and they are going to stay tough," he told journalists.
Ellie Geranmayeh, a policy fellow with the European Council on Policy Relations specializing in Iran told VICE News that the revised deadline was further away than expected, but that Kerry's remarks regarding new developments were likely an indication of progress. "I don't think they would have agreed to a 7-month extension had there not been something of substance," she said.
However, she warns that the extended deadline could pose issues for the US administration. President Barack Obama's government will surrender control of Congress to the Republicans in January, allowing party members wishing to derail the talks a chance to impose harsh unilateral sanctions on Iran. "The length of time exposes the diplomatic track to some hurdles… It could take these multilateral talks and turn them into a US domestic issue."
A Twitter account associated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was less diplomatic, commenting that "arrogant" powers (referring to the G5+1) had failed in an attempt to bring the country "to its knees."
The negotiation process has taken place over months of diplomatic brinksmanship and this is the second deadline extension after the two sides failed to reach an agreement by a July 2014 target.
All sides appeared keen to reach a deal, however, especially as the alternative could have been open conflict. Israel repeatedly threatened strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities if its enrichment program isn't curbed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the deadline extension but used a favored comparison of Iran with Nazi Germany and described the Islamic Republic's rulers as "violent medievalists."
"The deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible," Netanyahu told the BBC. "The deal would have left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atom bomb while removing the sanctions. The right deal that is needed is to dismantle Iran's capacity to make atomic bombs and only then dismantle the sanctions. Since that's not in the offing, this result is better."
The Israeli prime minister added that he felt Iran should not have any capacity to enrich uranium, saying it could only be a prelude to weaponizing it, an argument he also used to describe the country's development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. "I think everyone understands that Iran is unabashedly seeking to develop atomic bombs," he said.
"You do not want to give this medievalist regime in Iran, that throws acid in the faces of women, that oppresses gays, that subjugates an entire population, that exports terrorism far and wide — don't give these violent medievalists atomic bombs," he added. "That's not a good thing for the future of the world and its security."
Geranmayeh said that American leaders are unlikely to be diverted by such rhetoric. "US officials have been clear that a deal will be in the interest of the entire region and strengthen global security. I don't think the (Obama) administration and the EU3 (France, Germany and the UK) are willing to see what could be a reasonable deal pushed through by administrations in Tehran and the US prevented by threats by traditional allies."
However, she added that opposition to the talks from allies and rival politicians must be dealt with to reach a successful outcome. "I do think that there needs to be a persistent approach to dealing with those who want to derail diplomatic processes by upping sanctions or launching strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities — which Iran could then respond to. … The next seven months are about making a deal and managing opposition from every side."
Getting both sides round a table in the first place has not been easy, however and follows more than a decade of disagreement. That it has been possible at all is partly down to Rouhani. A self-styled moderate, the Iranian president's election heralded a thawing in American-Iranian relations, which helped make talks possible.
There have also been other signs of closer relations between Washington and Tehran, which have been sworn enemies for years.
On November 6, The Wall Street Journal reported that US President Barack Obama had sent a letter to Khamenei saying that the countries have a mutual interest in battling Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, but that cooperation relied on a successful conclusion to the nuclear talks.
Obama has refused to confirm or deny the letter but Ali Khoram, adviser to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, told international Arabic paper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that it had indeed been received and had had a favorable impact on the Iranian leadership and its traditional perception of the US as the "Great Satan." "Iran and the US have come to terms that despite more than three decades of mistrust, it is now in their national interest to constructively negotiate and reach an agreement," Khoram said.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck