Another Missed Opportunity

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Kaveh Afrasiabi

In historical retrospect, future historians may well regard the latest failure to reach a final-status nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers as a splendid though unfortunate example of 'missed opportunity'. While many of the crucial details of the intense week-long negotiation that ultimately fell short of a final deal have yet to be publicly revealed, still there is sufficient data to reach the conclusion that the description of a 'missed golden opportunity' is apt and can indeed shed some insight on the complexities of the issue at hand. According to the latest reports from Vienna, the tenth round of talks since the 'Joint Plan of Action" obtained last November has yielded only an intermediary resolution in the form of (a) a March deadline to reach a "political agreement" and (b) a July 2015 deadline to realize what has so far eluded the negotiators, namely, a final, comprehensive agreement. Both sides have commonly expressed partial satisfaction at concrete progress made in the marathon talks, with the Iranian negotiators hoping to achieve their set objectives "even sooner" than the above-mentioned new deadlines. One can certainly hope that it is not hope against hope and, somehow, the difficulties associated with the existing gaps can be resolved. Optimism must not, however, ever become a substitute for political and diplomatic realism. In a certain sense, the extension of Geneva interim agreement serves the interests of both sides as a 'lesser evil' since the alternative of failed talks in the face of existing disagreements is unattractive and carries negative consequences in terms of escalation of the nuclear crisis, which is antithetical to the interests of all sides, as well as the broader international community. The 7 month extension can be conceivably used to build further confidence and to narrow the differences and thus yield the hitherto-elusive goal of a final agreement.

The question is, however, if the existing gaps, e.g., on the level and scope of enrichment, the sequence and timing of sanction's removal, fate of Arak and Fordo facilities, and so on, reflect irreconcilable differences or can be abridged and if the latter is the case then why weren't they successfully tackled in these intense rounds of substantive negotiations? In other words, what difference a few months will make vis-a-vis those divisive issues? In answering this question, it may be said that the Obama administration requires time to sort out its relationship with the coming Republican-dominated Congress. True, but by the same token, wasn't this a golden opportunity for Obama to bypass the Congress and ink a deal with Iran through an executive order? In fact, looking ahead, Obama's ability to muster a deal with Iran through the executive order will likely shrink in the coming months, not the other way around. The anti-Iran hawks in the US Senate probably have the will, determination, and certainly the numbers to push through new anti-Iran legislation in the months to come. Obama's ability to veto such initiatives hinges on the Democratic minority, some of whom are known anti-Iran hawks. As a result, Obama faces the prospect of his veto overturned by a two thirds majority in the Senate and, at a minimum, this power has been theoretically much diminished.

In turn, the Dr. Rouhani administration should be careful not to fall in the trap of conveying absolute certainty that a final deal is in the offing and it is only a matter of a few months before it is materialized. A more guarded approach to this issue is called for by the dictates of diplomatic and political prudence and realism, in light of the complex and perhaps contradictory motives of the Americans. One reason for a healthy skepticism is that compared to the Geneva agreement, when the White House kept the preceding secret bilateral talks with Iran in Oman out of the radars of Saudis and Israelis, this time it was the complete opposite, as US Secretary of State John Kerry closely kept in touch with Riyadth and Tel Aviv throughout the hectic week, going so far as meeting the Saudi foreign minister in his parked airplane in Vienna in the middle of Iran negotiations. What role the negative Saudi influence played in neutralizing the potential for a final deal remains to be studied, pending further information. The Israelis too, who openly opted for the extension option, are publicly delighted and have a sigh of relief that no final deal with Iran was reached. There is little doubt that a convergence of three inter-related factors played a crucial role in preventing a major breakthrough by the November deadline. These were: the coalescing of Arab-Israeli anti-agreement lobbying efforts into a formidable coalition; the lack of political will in Washington and Obama's concerns about the political backlash at home; US and Western fears of losing their leverages in the region, which owe themselves partly to the nuclear crisis, which has been utilized to sustain their hegemony. Connected to these are, of course, Iran's potential ability to cement its leadership role in the region in the aftermath of a final deal, which is antithetical to the hegemonic interests and aspirations of Washington and, to a lesser extent, other western powers engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Still, from Iran's vantage point, there are several positive and even admirable components to the latest talks and their net result. First, time is running against the sanctions regime and the extension lends itself to the erosion of global unity on this subject matter. Already in the space of one year, the interim agreement has led to substantial increase in Iran's trade relations with the Europeans and others and, therefore, it is almost guaranteed that this trend will continue in the proximate future, no matter how hard the US hawks try to stitch the sanctions coalition together. Second, the longer the powers consent to Iran's enrichment activities, albeit within certain limits, the more entrenched this right and more problematic the Western attempt to dispossess Iran of this subtle concession. Finally, the talks have exposed the growing rifts among the "5+1" countries and it is a matter of time before they become fully transparent and consequential. Yet, irrespective of these positive aspects, the failure to reach a final agreement and sign a deal casts a gloomy sky that needs to be broken by the delivery of hopeful pledges to reach a final deal mentioned above. The missed opportunity is a cause for minor disappointment, but a healthy one that makes the Iranians more cognizant of the perils that lie ahead. For now, however, it is patently clear that the talks' promise of a rapprochement with the West has new hurdles to overcome and the cynicism of the will may have overtaken the optimism of intellect. In conclusion, one must ask about the coincidence of the November unfulfilled deadline and the forced resignation of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who was targeted by Washington's hawks for his known pro-Iran sympathies and who was an advocate of a US-Iran geostrategic realignment. Chances are Hagel will be replaced with a more interventionist official who will push for the expansion of US operations in Syria, linking them more organically to 'regime change' objective that was reportedly opposed Hagel. If so, then more ominous clouds of US-Iran and US-Russia contradictions are on the horizon, which will inevitably affect the climate for nuclear negotiations.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: Iran, Nuclear Talks, P5+1, US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, July 2015 Deadline, Joint Plan of Action, Republican-Dominated Congress, US Senate, John Kerry, Sanctions, Chuck Hagel, US-Iran Geostrategic Realignment, Afrasiabi

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