Iran talks: Hardliners and the shifting deadline

The break-up of the talks will open the way for intrigues by hardliners opposing the talks both in Iran and the US.

Those in support of the talks will regard the outcome as a victory, writes Torfeh [EPA]

The extension of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 is likely to have negative repercussions for both Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rouhani, who is one of the original advocates of talks with the US.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama would not fare much better. The break-up of the talks is likely to open the way for intrigues by the hardliners opposing the talks both in Iran and in the US, thereby reducing the chance of reaching a high-level political agreement by March, and confirming the full technical details by the new deadline set for June 30, 2015.

Rouhani, however, was upbeat. He said the gap between the two sides had narrowed and there would be an agreement sooner or later.

“The most important achievement of the talks was the common understanding that negotiations are the only way to the final deal,” he tweeted two hours after the break-up of the talks. Kerry, the US chief negotiator, also felt “real and substantial progress” was made in the talks. He nevertheless pointed out that there were still “significant points of disagreement”.

Wide gap remains

Alas a wide enough gap remains between Iran’s insistence on having as many sanctions lifted as possible, and the P5+1 demand that verification of Iran’s nuclear enrichment must leave no possibility of a “break out”.

West and Iran to make ‘last push’ for deal

Back home, the Iranian team will likely face pressure from the hardliners pointing a finger at their lack of success, asking questions about the point of it all and ridiculing the integrity of the US resolve.

Keyhan editorial argues that the intention of the talks was simply to undermine Iran’s nuclear energy industry. It criticises Zarif for having “shaken hands with the representative of a nation who is responsible for millions of innocent lives in the four corners of the region”.

By contrast, the reformist Shargh daily’s front-page headline reads “Extension of Hope”. Those in support of the talks would regard it as a victory arguing that the integrity of Iran’s nuclear industry was not sold out. They would point to the fact that they managed to keep intact the right to tap into $700m per month in frozen assets during the coming seven months when negotiations would continue.

They would also point out that there was clear determination in the US and European teams to reach an agreement by the deadline. There were non-stop shuttles, bilateral, trilateral and collective talks, political and scientific consultations, especially by the three main negotiators, Zarif, Kerry, and former EU policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

“We are continuing to chip away in Vienna, P5+1 united,” tweeted Kerry late Sunday night.

Obama revealed in his Sunday interview with ABC news what lies at the core of the failure to achieve agreement.

“Iran would love to see the sanctions end immediately, and then to still have some avenues that might not be completely closed, and we can’t do that,” he said.

Deep distrust

This illustrates a deep distrust in Iran’s repeated statements that it has no intention of building a bomb.

“Arrogant [countries] tried their best … but were not able to bring Iran to its knees,” tweeted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. “They will not be able to do so.”

Hardliners in Iran, angered at the failure to lift sanctions, make political capital of Obama’s words.

Obama has created these problems,” said Mohsen Rezaee, secretary of the powerful Expediency Council, referring to the US sanctions against Iran. “He must now settle them himself.”

“You cannot count on the Great Satan,” said another hardliner, the deputy chief of staff of the army, Massoud Jazaeri. “The Great Satan promises but it does not deliver.”

You cannot count on the Great Satan. The Great Satan promises but it does not deliver.

by - Massoud Jazaeri, Army Deputy Chief of Staff

Keyhan front-page headline referring to the US says: “The chief negotiator was not to be trusted.”

It complains that after one year of talks, and “much waste of time” sanctions were not lifted.

The failure to lift sanctions is seen to cause economic problems. Mohammad Reza Sabz-Alipoor, head of Iran’s International Trade Centre said the break-up of talks means “more uncertainty, more doubts and more nuclear-talks-fatigue, adversely affecting our economy”.

In Iran, there are also worries about statements by US Republicans such as Senators John Mc Cain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, three of the party’s leading foreign policy voices, saying the “extension of talks should be coupled with extra sanctions“.

Required steps

Many in Iran would argue that over the past few months the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly confirmed that Iran has followed the required steps and has reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium so why should it be scrutinised so closely for what appears mainly to be a suspicion that it may plan to make a bomb when it has denied such accusations repeatedly? They would point to the fact that the US is silent about nuclear stockpiles in Israel and Pakistan despite the serious security threats emanating from both countries. Iran insists it has the right to develop nuclear energy under the terms of its international treaties.

Obama admitted in his interview that there’s going to be “a long path towards normalisation of our relationship with Iran”. It seems as though the lack of mutual trust between Iran and the US may take longer to heal. The hope is that at the Vienna talks the first steps towards that long path were taken and that as promised by Kerry, negotiations over the next seven months would bear a specific goal of reaching that political agreement.

“We have seen new ideas surface,” said Kerry in his final statement to the press in Vienna.

“We are not going to use all the seven months,” said Foreign Minister Zarif. “We’d like to reach a political agreement as soon as possible.”

In a joint statement, EU envoy Catherine Ashton and Zarif also spoke of those “new ideas” that need to be explored. Those new ideas and the resolve to continue to work intensively on a new narrative both in Iran and in the West over improving mutual trust would perhaps be the only hope for a real political agreement in seven months. Otherwise another chance would be passed over to those threatening words that “all options are on the table”.

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.