Iran on edge as nuclear talks draw to a close

Advances by the Islamic State group, the war on Gaza, and domestic politics have put negotiations at risk.

    Iran on edge as nuclear talks draw to a close
    A June 2014 poll found that 70 percent of Iranians support the ongoing nuclear talks [Al Jazeera]

    Iran is now in the final months of extended negotiations with Western countries on the future of its nuclear programme; talks that could reshape the geopolitical equation in the Middle East.

    But as the violence continues to smolder in neighbouring Iraq and Syria, and uncertainty prevails after a ceasefire agreement ended recent hostilities in Gaza, threats that could derail the crucial negotiations abound.

    Yet experts and ordinary Iranians have said, with a mix of optimism and unease, that the time has come for Tehran to reach a long-term agreement that would end years of economic sanctions.

    "I am optimistic, as I think most Iranians are, that it is possible to reach an agreement," Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister, told Al Jazeera during a brief interview in Doha.

    I am optimistic, as I think most Iranians are, that it is possible to reach an agreement.

    - Abbas Maleki, former deputy foreign minister

    An interim deal was reached last November to freeze parts of Iran's nuclear programme. A six-month negotiation period followed, starting in February, but ended in a stalemate on July 20, forcing diplomats to agree on an extension.

    Iran is in the final stage of talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - plus Germany, on a deal that would prohibit nuclear enrichment for military use, while allowing it for civilian use. In exchange, the group known as the P5+1 would lift restrictions on banks doing business with Iran, and reopen the world market to Iranian oil and gas, among other exports. Some sanctions related to alleged human rights abuses remain.

    Official talks could resume in September in New York, but separate bilateral negotiations could happen earlier in Tehran. On August 18, the UN nuclear watchdog reported that Iran has taken more steps to meet additional conditions towards a final agreement, including diluting uranium gas, which experts said would make it more difficult to produce weapons.

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    Speaking at a forum on US-Iran relations in Doha, Maleki said that one of the things Iranians eagerly await with the lifting of sanctions, is the ability to travel abroad with less restrictions. "Iran is a country with [a] 78-million population. Most of them are in the middle class, or from a rich section of society," Maleki said. "They want to go to other countries."

    Still, a positive outcome during the extended talks is not guaranteed, according to Ariane Tabatabai, an expert on nuclear proliferation, arms control and Iranian politics at Harvard University. "The more time goes by, the more there is a risk of the negotiations being derailed," she told Al Jazeera.

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    The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq poses a particular dilemma for Iran, Tabatabai added. On one hand, Iran "cannot afford to sit and watch" as the situation worsens, while on the other, a military intervention could make Shia-led Iran "even more unpopular in the Arab streets" and among Iraqi Sunnis, Tabatabai said.

    Paradoxically, Iran has found itself fighting on the same side as the US in Iraq against the Islamic State group. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Syria, Iran supports President Bashar al-Assad, unlike the US.

    The recent fighting in Gaza, which left over 2,100 Palestinians dead, has also drawn in Iran, after Israel, which had threatened war with Iran over its nuclear programme, accused Tehran of arming Palestinian faction Hamas. On August 25, Iran claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone trying to fly over its nuclear facility in Natanz.

    On the domestic front, Rouhani is facing pressure from hardliners. In recent weeks the president lashed out at his opponents, saying they were suffering from "negotiation-phobia" and calling them "cowards". The incident prompted a backlash with 200 parliament members demanding a special meeting with him. Conservative members of parliament have also successfully impeached his science and research minister.

    Meanwhile in the US, Republicans are giving President Barack Obama a hard time as he deals with Iran, trying to block Tehran's access to an additional $2.8bn in oil revenues frozen in US banks - part of an incentive for signing-up to the interim deal.

    "The nuclear negotiations in itself is already very difficult," Cherif Bassiouni, Emeritus Professor of Law at DePaul University and a former US advisor on the Iran hostage crisis, told Al Jazeera. "If you add to it the additional geopolitical factors, that makes things even more difficult."

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    While "significant gaps" remain, the extension of talks means negotiators are making progress, Kelsey Davenport, an analyst at the Arms Control Association in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera. She said the delay "is a small price to pay" compared to a "possible military action".

    There are other signs that a deal could be reached.

    Recently, the UN reported that Iran had complied with Western demands to remove its stockpile of enriched uranium gas. It also appears that support exists for a deal in both Iran and the US: A June 2014 poll found that 70 percent of Iranians backed the ongoing talks, while a separate July 2014 poll conducted in the US also found bipartisan support for a deal.

    President Obama himself is intent on a compromise, "because he doesn't need another war", said Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution.

    Tabatabai agreed, saying an agreement may be the only choice to prevent "yet another bloody war in the region". "Both sides must understand that this is a window of opportunity and it will close without a deal," she said, noting that Rouhani's negotiating team has put its "entire political capital" on the talks.

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    Away from the diplomatic bargaining, Ali, an engineering student from Shiraz, said he is satisfied with Rouhani's efforts "to keep the rights in the legal way" of Iran's nuclear programme. 

    For Mehrdad Sajad, another student from Esfahan and a freelance photographer, a deal would at least ease the economic pain the country went through in recent years. But he said more should be done to improve Iran's economic and political freedom.

    "The economic situation is getting a little better now, and by better I mean not getting worse," he said. "Fixing that will needs lots of time and effort."

    In 2006, the UN and US imposed a broad economic embargo, paralysing the country's growth for years, causing high unemployment, inflation and as much as 60 percent currency devaluation. The sanctions even prevent Iranian airline companies from buying new planes and spare parts, leading some experts to blame the sanctions for the recent plane crash in Tehran.

    Despite Iran remaining the 19th largest economy in terms of GDP in the world, the psychological impact of the sanctions has also caused many young people to be "worried about their future, and their job safety", according toTehran native Niloo Ghasemi, who is currently studying in the US.

    Sina Afshar, a student from the city of Kerman, said he cannot wait for the negotiations "to finish soon". He said the sanctions and the devaluation of the Iranian currency toman, stalled his plan to study medicine in the UK.

    Asked whether young Iranians, which make up half of the population, support Rouhani and his diplomatic efforts, Afshar said: "As we say in Persian, between bad and worse, choose bad. Rouhani is like that; he is much better than anyone [else], but he is not mister perfect."

    Rana Hilal contributed to this report.

    Follow Ted Regencia on Twitter.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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