Iran Talks Miss Deal Deadline: What’s Next?

by Ariane Tabatabai

With the November 24 deadline for a comprehensive deal between world powers and Iran on the country’s nuclear program now behind us, the negotiating teams have returned to their capitals to debate next steps. They will reconvene in Oman in early December to continue their efforts to strike a deal in seven months.

The extension represents both good and bad news. It shows once again that the parties truly want a final deal and that they are ready to take up the task. At the same time, the prolonged timeframe for a deal won’t be welcomed by various factions back home, who now have more time and room to derail the process altogether.

Indeed, as the negotiating teams were working around the clock to try to bridge the remaining gaps, various groups in Tehran and Washington, as well as in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, were working to get their own concerns onto the negotiating table.

In the United States, some influential members of Congress believe that Iran is in a comfortable position, not really seeking a solution but rather an indefinite extension of the talks to get sanctions relief. But as noted by Secretary of State John Kerry from Vienna on the day the extension was announced, Iran has been complying with the interim deal concluded in November 2013. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report the same day showing that key elements of the Iranian nuclear program remain suspended. Tehran, then, is not just kicking the can down the road.

Powerful Iranian figures also have concerns about the extension. They believe that the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), signed last year in Geneva, has effectively suspended important parts of the country’s nuclear program without giving Iran much back in return. However, they are also ignoring an important element of the process: The JPOA has granted Tehran access to some of its frozen assets, as it slowly prepares to reopen its market to international business, and leave its political isolation.

Over the next few months, critics on all sides will become louder, especially as Tehran and Washington continue to engage in cordial settings, raising concerns among some of their respective key constituencies.

The remaining key issues—the number of centrifuges Iran will be able to keep and operate, the timeframe of the deal, and sanctions relief—will likely be the main points of contention for these constituencies.

Other challenges could also arise in the process, including the interpretation of the JPOA over the next several months and the grey areas it includes. For instance, a couple of weeks prior to the deadline, Iran began to feed its IR-5 centrifuges (currently non-operational) with Uranium Hexafluoride, which has become a source of debate among nuclear experts. According to David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security, this act could have been a violation of the interim deal. Others, however, including Jeffrey Lewis at the Monterey Institute, have stated that the JPOA does in fact allow Iran to pursue research and development, including this activity. Iran predictably denied that it had failed to uphold its end of the bargain.

However, while key components of the Iranian program, including the installation of new centrifuges or further work on the Arak heavy water reactor, are suspended under the JPOA, Tehran continues its research and development. This means that a new generation of centrifuges could add fuel to the fire. Ideally, Iran would refrain from such activities while the talks are ongoing. But while such a step would be received positively on the international stage, thereby aiding the confidence-building process, domestically, it would backfire. It would provide conservatives and other hard-liners in Tehran with more ammunition to shoot at the negotiating team and the government generally.

Indeed, balancing international and domestic priorities and expectations is going to constitute a major challenge for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as the talks continue. If his government is to make any concessions, it needs to show its domestic constituencies that it is not giving up and still making progress on the nuclear program.

The good news is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest authority in Iran, continues to back the negotiating process. He reiterated his support for the negotiators led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Nov. 25, the day after the deadline was missed, saying that Zarif and his team remained standing even as the West tried to force them to kneel. This crucial statement, which reiterated his deep mistrust of the West, came amid increasing pressure from hard-liners in Tehran and will serve in quieting them down for a while.

But as the key countries of Iran and the United States continue to engage, the prospect of prolonged détente, and especially rapprochement between the two long-time adversaries will result in the unity of four unlikely stakeholders—hard-liners in Tehran and Washington, as well as Riyadh and Tel Aviv—in opposing improved US-Iran relations, for their own reasons.

Meanwhile, the stakes are higher than ever. President Obama, who will be dealing with a Republican-dominated Congress as of January, needs a major foreign policy achievement before his term is up in 2016. In the meantime, his ability to effectively “defeat and ultimately destroy” Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria—another defining element of is presidential legacy—will inevitably be influenced by the outcome of the talks. On the Iranian side, by the new deadline of July 1, 2015, Rouhani will have spent the better half of his first term almost entirely focused on the nuclear issue, essentially rendered unable to seriously advance other items on his agenda.

In other words, both presidents have been banking on a historic deal, but while the extension of the talks allows Tehran and the West to continue engaging, thereby building the trust necessary for a final accord, it
also means more time and room for detractors to sabotage the process.

*This article was revised on Nov. 27, 2014.

Ariane Tabatabai is an Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

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  1. It’s a charade. The US doesn’t want a deal which would threaten its relations with Gulf despots, anger Israel, reduce foreign military sales and negate the need for the extensive US military presence in the western Gulf including many installations and 40,000 troops.

    The US goal is still regime change in Iran and that has been stepped recently with the move toward a strengthened US special forces effort in the Middle East.

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