Iran Nuclear Talks and US - India Deal: A Comparison

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Can Iran replicate the experience of last-minute US-India nuclear deal in November 2006? This is an interesting question as the November 24th deadline for an Iran deal looms closer. Chances of a major breakthrough in the Vienna talks currently underway are subject to a great deal of speculation given the confidential nature of the intense negotiations, described by some Western diplomats as "positive and serious." Some pundits have written about a "general framework" agreement that would leave some critical details for further negotiations. Others, like John Limbert, have prayed for a "miracle." Still others are in favor of an extension, with some experts regarding it as inevitable given the complexity of issues and the remaining differences, while others point at the window of opportunity now that would be closed once the new Republican-dominated Congress convenes in January, 2015. Historical comparisons may be helpful here. The US-India "nuclear sharing" agreement was reached after several years of tumultuous negotiations, and was signed by President George Bush when the 'lame duck' Congress was in session after an election that had resulted in the Republicans' loss. Bush took advantage of the small window of time to get the deal done before the Democrat-dominated Congress could act. According to the US negotiator at the time, Nicholas Burns, both sides showed a remarkable degree of flexibility "at the last minute" otherwise the deal would not have gone through. Interestingly, several weeks prior to that, the differences between the two sides had "sharpened" and had become more "focused."

Yet, confronted with the reality of a deadline and a potentially hostile US Congress, the US and Indian negotiators stepped back from their hardened positions and showed new flexibility that led to the deal. Can this be the fate of the Iran nuclear deal? The answer will be clear in a precious few days, but at the moment of this writing the answer was clouded under a thick air of suspense. Yet, it is rather abundantly clear that the parties have come too far and made too much progress -- Russian envoy has been quoted as saying up to 95 percent of issues have been resolved -- to allow a complete collapse. That would not bode well for either side and is therefore highly unlikely, though by no means impossible. The more likely scenarios are (a) a comprehensive deal, (b) a general agreement with a short-term extension to work out the remaining differences, (c) an extension of interim agreement, i.e., Interim II. Of course, the best case scenario is a final-status agreement that would end the Iranian nuclear standoff and result in immediate, and concrete, benefits to all sides. It is estimated that such a deal would yield hundreds of billions of dollars of new trade and investment with Iran. The various trade and financial ramifications of such a deal represent a major incentive for some of the negotiating parties such as France and Germany to show genuine interest in this scenario. Even the US companies have lined up for a major re-entry into the Iranian market and, therefore, it is not in US's own interest to play spoiler by making proposals that would be unacceptable in Tehran. Clearly, any nuclear deal that does not respect Iran's rights and would be considered a lop-sided deal cannot be politically feasible in Iran. 

On the other hand, the domestic hurdles in both Tehran and Washington can be handled if the required flexibility is adopted by both sides, in light of the rhetoric of some Western diplomats conveying the false perception that only Iran is required to do so. What these diplomats ignore is that for the deal to materialize, the US and other Western powers need to stop playing hard-ball with the two principal issues of Iran's centrifuges and the removal of sanctions. Otherwise, the internal critics of a deal would be exonerated in their skepticism that the West wants to take most of the benefits from the deal while giving up very little. 

In conclusion, as the clock winds down to the deadline, the US negotiators would be well-advised to take another look at the process of negotiations with India and their predecessors' last minute flexibility, otherwise they must deal with the unwanted consequence of failure and a nuclear crisis that is up for grabs for a mutually-satisfactory win-win resolution.

*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, US - India Deal, New Republican Congress, President George Bush, Flexibility, Comprehensive Deal, Interim II, Western Powers, Win-Win Resolution, Afrasiabi

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