Iranian officials have announced that the Vienna nuclear talks with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany (P5+1) have resulted in the agreement of a framework and agenda for future rounds of talks; indicating that the negotiations have yet to make progress for any of the substantive issues.
As Iran continues to attend talks on the nuclear issue, we can observe a number of factors which indicate that a final nuclear deal may prove difficult or impossible to attain:
Rhetoric from the hardline leadership
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei commented ahead of the talks that “I am not optimistic about the negotiations. It will not lead anywhere, but I am not opposed either”.
These comments have rightly been the subject of a lot of attention, because they are highly significant:
During the first round of talks, Khamenei silenced much of the potential hardline opposition to these negotiations with the P5+1, by making it very clear that President Rohani and the nuclear negotiators enjoyed his backing.
In saying that the talks “will not lead anywhere;” Khamenei can be seen to be washing his hands of the process and therefore opening the doors to greater criticism and opposition. This will make it harder for Iranian nuclear negotiators to be seen to be making any concessions. Khamenei has subsequently told his officials to make preparations for potential failure of the talks. He said they should plan for an “economy of resistance”.
Since the first Geneva deal, a succession of senior Iranian officials, including President Rohani himself, have gone on record denying any prospect of reducing the scale of the uranium enrichment process. So it will be a surprise if we see any major concessions on this front any time soon.
The Iranian media has also been quick to seize on this point; arguing that the interim nuclear deal was the result of a US climb-down, not Iranian compromises. The Iranian hardline press in the days before the Vienna talks has been full of warnings about the “lies” and “plots” of the West, in trying to force concessions on Iran; thereby weakening Iran’s global stature.
“Dismantling the nuclear program is not on the agenda,” said Iran’s deputy foreign minister at the start of the P5+1 talks in Vienna on 19 February; which must have made certain delegates wonder why they were there at all.
Whether or not either side admits it; Iran’s obvious primary objective has been to reduce the crippling sanctions that have been so dangerous for the economy.
The Obama administration has said that Iran would receive no more than $7bn in sanctions relief under the recently signed interim nuclear deal. However, some experts estimate that the rise in oil exports will give Iran “more than $20bn”.
Exports of Iranian crude oil jumped to 1.32 million barrels in January, up from 1.06m barrels in December. (International Energy Agency)
As long as there is no immediate prospect of a renewed increase in sanctions, this opening of doors to the oil trade takes a significant amount of the pressure off the Iranian regime; bringing in increasing funds to state coffers and allowing Iran’s leaders to show the public that their approach is improving Iran’s economic position. This comes at a time when large quantities of Iranian financial and military aid is being channeled to Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah to crush the Syrian rebels; so sanctions relief will reduce the difficulties the regime is having in funding its foreign and domestic commitments.
Room for compromise?
Iran’s leaders have weathered decades of international isolation and while they recognize the dangers of a sustained and tightening sanctions regime; for the old guard, their legitimacy is based on the perception of standing up to the West, not in being seen to compromise for economic gain.
Iran has always driven a hard bargain, and so in talks with the US and P5+1 states there will be little incentive to make significant concessions, which could make Iran look weak and undermine long-term prospects of possessing a military nuclear capacity.
However, both Rohani and Obama have staked a lot on showing that negotiations can bear fruit. Therefore, even if the current talks appear to be going nowhere, both will want to play the long game and try to find various tangible results to show for their efforts.
Therefore it is not surprising that the sides are talking positively about the fact that the main outcome of the Vienna meetings is to agree on more rounds of talks.
When the six-month window for success approaches, it would greatly undermine both Rohani and Obama for negotiations to end without a deal, so it would be reasonable to expect yet another interim deal with a number of minor concessions that fall short of a halt to enrichment, and the promise of further rounds of talks.
At the same time, the growing voices of hardline discontent towards Rohani and his policy of engagement with the West will get louder, as may be the temptation for Khamenei to throw Rohani to the wolves if his overtures to America produce no further results. This will occur in a context of increasing Iranian ability to work around the remaining sanctions and boost oil revenue, further reducing incentives to make risky compromises on the nuclear issue.
The November 2013 Geneva deal between Iran and the P5+1 was touted as being the beginning of a new chapter in Iran-West relations. History may come to judge this event as the high water mark of attempts to patch over division between America and the Islamic Republic of Iran.