Iranians are looking for a bargain in Vienna – but pushing too hard for a bargain can backfire.
A week after senior officials from Iran and the United States concluded their talks in Geneva, bilateral meetings resumed on Monday in the Swiss lakeside town of Montreux, between Iranian diplomats and officials from some of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1).
Negotiators are working on a proposal that may be considered as a framework to address the political and technical details of an agreement on Iran’s contested nuclear programme. This document must be accepted by late March in order to prepare for further talks on the comprehensive deal by July 1.
It is clear now that the agreement cannot be implemented in separate phases as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly opposed the two-phase proposal, whereby the sanctions would be lifted at a later date, or involve only a partial lifting of the embargo. negotiators to bring the agreement to a single phase.
Nailing it down
Iranian and US negotiators were eager to meet the first deadline, working over nine hours a day from February 19 to 23. The negotiators probably brought what was concluded in Geneva last week to their capitals for consultations and now they’re ready to meet again to outline the framework agreement.
A source close to the negotiations told me last week in Geneva that if in the coming days the talks go well between Iran and the US, they would call for ministerial level meetings of the P5+1 members to “nail down” the agreement. The source, who asked not be named, was optimistic about reaching a framework agreement even before the March 24 deadline.
Still, both sides continue to indicate that there is a long way to go to reach the final agreement.
US President Barack Obama has to prove to the US Congress that progress is being made at the talks by the first deadline and stop them from imposing new sanctions by the end of March.
Iran has threatened to walk out of the negotiations if new sanctions are implemented by the US Congress. Congress needs proof that after a year and half of talks, Iran’s nuclear programme has been curbed and that the country is incapable of producing nuclear weapons.
For both sides, the level of urgency appears to have been acknowledged by the engagement of high level technical experts.
From Iran, Dr Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, and from the US, Dr Ernest Monize, Secretary of Energy, are taking part in these talks. The elevated level of these talks, however, does not mean that the closure of a deal is imminent.
A US official, who briefed journalists in Geneva, admitted that the pressure is on both sides.
“We all feel the pressure but that doesn’t makes us rush,” he said.
Hopes for a nuclear deal have been raised at least twice since Hassan Rouhani became president. The first interim agreement was reached on November 23, 2013 in Geneva with the goal that the comprehensive deal would be reached in six months. Twice since, the interim agreement has been extended but it is now clear that if a deal is not secured this time around, there won’t be another extension.
The political cost of such a failure is heavy for both sides – especially for Rouhani who has gambled his political career on these talks by promising the Iranian people he’d solve the issue if elected president. Rouhani’s reputation and his political administration now hinges on the success of these talks.
The political cost of such a failure is heavy for both sides - especially for Rouhani who has gambled his political career on these talks by promising the Iranian people he'd solve the issue when elected president.
He won the election in the summer of 2013 by promising people he’d put an end to the lagging 10-year ongoing nuclear file, improve the shattered economy, stop the international isolation and return national prestige to all Iranians. He showed them a key and said he can open all locked doors.
The economy has slowly gotten better since the interim agreement was reached and inflation has decreased, but existing sanctions are harming the nation’s economy and with the sharply dropped price of oil in the international market, Iran would face harsh economic consequences if it failed to secure the deal with the West and new sanctioned were to be imposed.
If the talks fail
New tougher sanctions can completely paralyse Iran’s fragile economy and jeopardise Rouhani’s political career for good.
Iran’s next parliamentary elections are due next year. Reformists want to bid high if Rouhani secures the deal. If the negotiations fail, Rouhani and the reformers could lose the 2017 presidential elections to the hardliners.
Rouhani’s second-term election prospect has been linked to his success at these talks with the US and western powers. If the talks fall apart, it’s difficult to say if the parties would return to the negotiating table, especially as US elections draw nearer.
Agreeing on the frameworks is a sign that Khamenei has felt the pressure from his people, who might like to have two reasons to celebrate coming Nowruz (Persian New Year) festivities at the end of the month.
The resumption of the talks in Montreux is widely seen as a positive sign. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of pressure on the officials of Iran and the US to prove that the negotiations were the best way to solve this dispute. The alternative is certainly not as pleasant as meeting in a scenic Swiss town.
Camelia Entekhabifard is an Iranian journalist, TV commentator and author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth – a Memoir of Iran.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.