The prospect of a deal over Iran's nuclear program is fraying nerves among its neighbors across the Gulf. So on Thursday, after US Secretary of State John Kerry concluded the latest round of negotiations with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, his next stop was Saudi Arabia, where he sought to reassure the American ally over an agreement that could reverberate through the region.
A nuclear agreement would be no "grand bargain," Kerry said at a news conference with Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. "Even as we engage in these discussions with Iran around this program, we will not take our eye off Iran's destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula, Yemen particularly."
Arab rivals are rattled over the swelling regional influence of the Shia Islamic Republic and the potential for concessions by the US that could threaten their interests. Israel too has been sounding the alarm, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning the US Congress on Tuesday that a deal with Tehran would be a "countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare."
The talks ended on a mildly positive note on Wednesday, with both sides suggesting that they were inching closer to a deal — but slowly.
"We have made some progress but have a lot of challenges yet ahead," said a senior US State Department official. "The bottom line here is that (there is) no deal to announce to anybody today, but very intense, hard work, some progress, but tough challenges yet to be resolved." Zarif offered a similar assessment, telling reporters that "we have [made progress] but a lot of work remains."
Iran and the P5 + 1 countries — the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China — will meet for another round of talks on March 15, hoping that they can close the remaining gaps on a deal that will curtain Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for relief on punishing economic sanctions.
The Islamic Republic has always denied its activities are for anything other than peaceful energy purposes. But in 2002, reports emerged that was Iran building a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak, neither of which were declared to the United Nations. In the following year, the country agreed to stop producing enriched uranium, and acceded to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). In 2005, the Iranian president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told the United Nations that the country had an "inalienable right" to produce nuclear fuel.
The IAEA began its investigations, but could not conclude that the country's program was being used wholly for peaceful reasons, and the matter was taken to the UN Security Council in February 2006. Since then, there have been back and forth proposals and heated negotiations, with the US and Western allies calling for Iran to stop enriching uranium and at times raising the specter of military action. The UN Security Council has, to date, imposed six resolutions as a result of Iran's nuclear program. Sanctions were also imposed on the country, which had a severe impact on its economy.
But times have changed. Iran is no longer led by Ahmadinejad, who, according to a Chatham House analysis, denied the severe effects of the sanctions on the country, an error which cut into his popularity. Current President Hassan Rouhani has been hailed as a reformer, and Zarif is "known to be a more constructive and cooperative negotiator," according to the study's author, associate fellow Sara Bazoobandi. Talks were launched in the form of the Joint Action Plan, an interim agreement to curtail Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions. However the deadline has already been postponed twice: in July, an extension was agreed until November, when it was once again moved following talks in Vienna, this time to June. Rouhani said at the time that "many gaps were narrowed and our positions with the other side got closer."
The fresh round of talks this month has been punctuated with a certain amount of controversy. President Barack Obama called for Iran to freeze its sensitive nuclear activities for a decade, and Zarif fired back that Iran "will not accept excessive and illogical demands." The same day as Zarif's rejection, Netanyahu, who faces a general election on March 17, spoke at the US Congress — on the Republicans' invite — warning that Iran's nuclear activities "posed a threat to the entire world." Yet Obama was dismissive of the speech, saying: "The alternative that the prime minister offers is 'no deal,' in which case Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program, accelerate its nuclear program without us having any insight into what they are doing and without constraint."
Speaking to VICE News, Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and author of On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution: Power and Resistance Today, said: "I have been amongst the few people who have been continuously optimistic. There is a genuine political will to find a deal on both sides. Both Obama and Rouhani have spent too much political capital on this to back down at this stage. Even Netanyahu's rather hysterical attempt to derail the diplomatic process and to accentuate confrontation has been largely unsuccessful."
Pressure on Washington from the pro-Israeli lobby was, however, "the elephant in the room," he said. However it had less influence than it used to, he added, "exactly because both Obama and Rouhani seem determined to find a solution to the nuclear conundrum."
However, there is still a long way to go. James M. Acton, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VICE News that "there are real substantive issues that are yet to be agreed," and that the US and Iran face several obstacles and constraints. He said: "Domestic politics complicate reaching mutually acceptable agreement on substantive issues. It's not clear that the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], who is the highest decision maker in Iran, is willing to back down and compromise over the issues." Acton also said that Obama is constrained "both in terms of popularity and in terms of the extent that Congress could try and destroy any deal."
If a framework agreement is not reached by the end of March, both sides would suffer politically.
Adib-Moghaddam said: "If the talks do not produce a viable outcome that can be sold as a success on both sides, the right-wing will be empowered to argue against diplomacy and peace. The stakes are very high, failure can't be an option if Rouhani and Obama want to secure their political legacy. Ultimately, the world would be a by far more dangerous place."
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