The Iran Nuclear Negotiations At The Turn Of Another Year

Iran and the P5+1 signed the interim deal on Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013.

by Peter Jenkins

It is tempting to assume that, for Iran nuclear negotiators, 2013 was a year of two halves: stalemate during the last months of the Ahmadinejad administration, and then, after the presidential election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani, a gathering of momentum towards the break-through announced in the early hours of November 24.

The reality was more complex. Many of the “elements of a first step” made public on November 24 were already on the agenda at the meetings that took place in Almaty in late February and early April. Secret talks between Iran and the US got under way in Oman in March, it later emerged. And reporting on the second day of the April Almaty meeting suggests that Western participants had sensed a sea-change in Iranian attitudes: stone-walling gave way to a readiness to negotiate.

Nonetheless, the key developments of 2013 were the election of Rouhani, the return to the playing-field, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, of Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the skill with which the latter executed Iran’s plays from mid-September through to 24 November.

His many meetings in New York in the second half of September helped to convince US, British and French Ministers that they could afford to be seen to be cutting deals with Iran’s new government.

His knowledge of the nuclear problem, dating back to its origins in 2003, and his formidable brain allowed him to engage in a meaningful quest for a balanced solution.

And his wit and resilience enabled him to survive the galling experience of being blamed by US Secretary of State John Kerry for the break-down that occurred at the first of two Geneva meetings in November — when the blame properly belonged to France’s Foreign Minister.

That said, credit must also go to Secretary John Kerry, to his British counter-part, William Hague, and to President Barack Obama. All three showed the political courage needed (regrettably) to ignore opposition to engaging Iran on reasonable terms, and to steer towards a solution that Israel and Saudi Arabia will deprecate. No doubt they drew strength from opinion polls that suggest little support for inflicting on Iran the death and destruction that both these turbulent allies have been advocating.

Iran’s readiness to support Russia in pressing Syria’s President to adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and surrender his CW also deserves mention. It helped US and UK Ministers to get out of a political corner which was unpopular domestically but into which they had unwisely strayed (or been pushed?).

Finally, the readiness of Iran’s Supreme Leader to displease Iranian “hard-liners” by authorising Iran’s new President, one of his former national security advisers, to show “heroic flexibility”, to secure an agreement with the West, should not go unnoticed. This was not the act of a Darth Vader or a Sauron, or even of a “mad mullah”.

Challenges in 2014

One of the most reassuring aspects of the understandings made public on November 24 is that the Joint Plan of Action lists “elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution”. The parties appear to have a reached a preliminary understanding on certain principles, such as that Iran’s enrichment program should have parameters that are consistent with practical needs. Applied intelligently, with strong political encouragement, these principles can offer solutions to the problems that will confront negotiators in the coming months.

Iran’s leaders cannot afford politically to write off investments in uranium enrichment and a 40MW research reactor; somehow they must convince the West that they have no intention of using their centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium, or the reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran does not want to feel that it is subject to more intrusive monitoring by the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) than other parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); but it has an interest in using the IAEA to rebuild global confidence in its peaceful nuclear intentions — confidence that was forfeited by concealing aspects of nuclear research and development over 18 years (1985-2003).

Iran badly needs the lifting of US and EU nuclear-related sanctions. Can it help make that possible by demonstrating that it does not seek the demise of the state of Israel, or even of a Saudi monarchy that is waging a proxy war against Shi’a Islam?

That said, the most pressing of this year’s challenges rests squarely on the shoulders of the US administration. The administration must safeguard the future of the negotiating process by denying Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez a veto-proof majority for the bill they tabled a few days before Christmas.

Though reluctant to interfere in US politics, the UK and other European allies will be willing the administration to succeed. Europe has paid an ill-affordable economic price for supporting US policy on Iran. It does not want the prize of a balanced and durable solution, which is consistent with the NPT, to be snatched from the West’s grasp at the behest of US friends of Israel.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. All things being what they are or seem, if anyone doubts the true intention of where Israel stands, viewing the present negotiations taking place over the Palestinian issue, these so called friends of Israel will be responsible for the death & destruction that will follow, if they are allow Israel to call the shots. There is no reasoning with psychopathic behavior, unless it’s locking said inflicted up in padded cells to protect the rest of us.

  2. Great piece. And too few Americans are even aware Iran helped to get rid of Syria CW. (Assuming job is completed)

  3. Convincing the West, somehow, that Iran has no intention of producing weapons grade uranium/plutonium, is not only NOT a requirement of the NPT, but a logical impossibility in proving a negative. The use of the word “somehow” is very apt here because th no measures of transparency could be realistically drawn that would provide such an assurance. The fact that Iran is singled-out – despite the verdict of the US (and Israel’s) intelligence agencies of the absence of a weaponisation programme or any decision to that effect – is evidence that the genuine concern here is not about proliferation threat.

    What is termed as a “global absence of confidence” is limited to the US, Israel and Saudi-Arabia primarily, with the Western allies obediently pulled along. Iran’s concealment of aspects of its nuclear programme between 1985 to 2002 has been used as a pretext for this continuing “absence of confidence” despite the IAEA’s statement that no diversion to weaponisation had been made, and also the context of such concealment, that is, the US’s sabotage and forced cancellation – in violation of the Article IV of the NPT – of all nuclear contracts and material purchases by Iran, on the one hand, and the Israeli bombing of civilian Osirak reactor in Iraq with total impunity, on the other.

    Peter’s suggestion that “Iran badly needs the lifting of US and EU nuclear-related sanctions. Can it help make that possible by demonstrating that it does not seek the demise of the state of Israel, or even of a Saudi monarchy that is waging a proxy war against Shi’a Islam?”, clearly highlights the core issue and obstacle to reaching an agreement and the purpose of the US/EU murderous sanctions to shape regional politics. Iran has never threatened Israel militarily. Iran’s defensive strategy is expressed clearly by Iran’s supreme leader that Iran would not unilaterally attack any country but would only retaliate in self-defence. This defensive strategy is well-recognised in the West. So how would Iran “demonstrate” that it is not seeking “the demise of the state of Israel”, but by accepting a brutal occupation as legitimate and by withdrawing its support for the Palestinians’ rights, under circumstances of Israel’s intransigent expansion of its illegal settlements, its worsening policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? Iran’s new administration has stretched a hand of reconciliation to Saudi Arabia too, but clearly what is demanded is the withdrawal of support for Assad government and bowing down to Israeli/Saudi illegitimate regional ambitions. Similar to enrichment rights and Arak HWR, this too would be a no-go area, not just for Iranian leaders, but for the majority of Iranian population, sanctions or not.

  4. I find Mehrnaz’s discussion and logic refreshing. Western analysts and policy makers do harm by regurgitating the misguided cliches. the misguided framing of the issues itself contributes to the complications we face in the region.

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