Iran nuclear talks: Who’s the real loser?

China and Russia have much at stake if the sanctions-weary people of Iran get what they’re hoping for.

The failure of the negotiations would destabilise the region, writes Entekhabifard [Reuters]

In the most critical week of Iran’s nuclear talks with the so-called P5+1, just a few days before the interim deal was due to expire on July 20, the foreign ministers of the US, UK, France, and Germany arrived in Vienna for a meeting with the Iranian negotiating team. They met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and President Hassan Rouhani’s special envoy, to review the possibilities of reaching a comprehensive deal by week’s end – or to find another solution, perhaps even an extension if the gaps have been narrowed.

In spite of the UK prime minister’s pessimism – he said last month he would rebuild relations with Iran with a “clear eye and a hard head” – both Iran and the US appeared to remain optimistic. US Secretary State John Kerry stayed on in Vienna an additional day to continue talks with Zarif. In an informal encounter with the press late on July 13, Zarif talked about “working to find innovative approaches” to solve the rest of the issues. 

Will the P5+1 negotiators loosen up their positions a bit in order to reach the comprehensive deal by end of the week? 

Iranian media’s coverage of the talks is telling; It reports on the possible winners and losers in this game, pitting Russia and China on Iran’s side and the others, especially the US, on the opposite side of the talks. Shargh Daily, a Persian-language Iranian newspaper, explained the absence of the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers in Vienna at this last juncture of the crucial talks.

“[Russia and China] are neither against the deal nor disputing the talks,” Shargh Daily writes on the front page on July 15.

If the talks fizzle

So who stands to be the loser and who might emerge as the winner from these talks?

Quite simply, should a deal materialise, the losers would be those who are looking to take advantage of Iran and the Iranian people. Russia and China stand out from the other members of P5+1 as the top beneficiaries should the talks fizzle. They may pretend to be on Iran’s side in the dispute, when in reality, any victory for Iran would necessarily bring tremendous losses for Moscow and Beijing.

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Indeed, Russia, China, and black marketeers all have something in common – that is, they have nothing to lose if the talks fail. Iran would likely grow more reliant on Russia as a regional security buffer and Russia would lose an oil and gas competitor and might even secure a better deal with Iran if the talks fall apart.

Low-quality Chinese goods have already infested Iran’s markets and the continuation of this business – trading oil with cheap goods – is the perfect deal for China versus doing business with Europe and the US.

Corrupt Iranian officials, certain elements of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Council (IRGC) and sanctions brokers are among those reaping vast benefits from the animosity between Iran and the US, and the continuation of these nuclear talks without a breakthrough. But even these profiteers stand to lose in the long run because their positions are not sustainable.

For instance, Babak Zanjani became an “overnight billionaire”, according to Iranian officials, when he was given a share of the country’s oil to sell in international markets in an elaborate scheme devised to circumvent western sanctions. In December 2013, he was arrested and charged with corruption in Iran. Zanjani is accused of withholding $1.9bn in oil revenues.

What’s at stake

Interestingly, even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has much at stake if negotiations fail because he has strongly supported a nuclear agreement and he has recognised that sanctions need to be lifted for the economy to improve. Failure to reach a deal would expose his inability to govern and conduct basic statecraft.

The failure of the negotiations would also destabilise the region, close off business opportunities for Arab states and the companies. Not to mention, an accident with Iran’s nuclear programme would harm the environment, a serious concern repeatedly voiced by Arab Gulf nations, and prevent other countries in the region from pursuing nuclear power.

Overall, Iran needs a deal whether that means coming back to the table if the talks fail, or continuing to draft an agreement if there is an extension of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). 

What many are now looking forward to hear more about is Iran’s so-called “innovative approaches”, as promised by Zarif on July 13. Iranians are preparing to begin the three-day commemoration of the death of the first Imam of Shia Islam – Imam Ali. Might a deal mark a happy ending to these three days of national mourning, ending on July 19, and provide the sanctions-weary people of Iran with another reason to celebrate?

After all, closing the markets off to Chinese junk and cutting off Russia’s hands from Iran’s oil and gas would be among the first benefits Iranians can enjoy if the comprehensive agreement is reached.    

Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian journalist, TV commentator and author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth – a Memoir of Iran.