IN all likelihood, the November 24 deadline for Iran and six Western powers to reach an agreement that would end their 12-year confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions won’t be met at all.
Over the weekend, negotiators in Vienna were scrambling to salvage the talks and work out a deal. While some progress has been made, the prevailing sentiment is that there is not enough time to cobble together a document that everyone could sign off on.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry pointed to “big gaps” that need to be closed. One insider at the talks was more forthright. “The chances of reaching a deal in the next 48 hours are very small,” he said.
Fortunately, no one believes the negotiations are on the verge of collapse, and many negotiators are already looking forward to an extension of a few days, if not weeks.
The stakes are too high for the negotiations not to bear fruit. For the first time Iran has lifted the curtain of distrust that has shrouded its relations with the West. Tehran has despised the US as the “Great Satan” and its “number one enemy” for spearheading economic sanctions to pressure Iran into opening its nuclear facilities to UN inspection. It also has not forgotten that Washington propped up the Shah and offered him and his family sanctuary after they were driven out in a revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
But in a breakthrough preliminary deal last year, the US and European Union agreed to ease some sanctions on Iran, while Tehran agreed to some curbs on its nuclear programs.
A framework agreement was supposed to have been signed last July, but the negotiators came up short. They agreed to November 24 as a new cut-off date, and that too is about to pass.
Why is an accord so difficult to reach? There are two big stumbling blocks: Uranium enrichment and the lifting of sanctions.
Tehran says it wants to build more enrichment facilities to support the growing demand for nuclear energy for peaceful uses. The West remains suspicious that Iran is actually out to produce weapons-grade uranium, and wants to Tehran to curb its enrichment capabilities.
The sanctions clamped by the West are hurting Iran’s economy, particularly its oil exports, and its leaders want the restrictions lifted all at once. The US and its allies want to gradually ease the sanctions to make sure Iran tempers its uranium enrichment program.
Giving the negotiators more time to work things out seems the only feasible option, but it is not without drawbacks. The extension could stretch for months, or even a year. There are fears that it could lead to fresh US sanctions that might prompt Iran to abandon the negotiations.
A long extension could also make it harder for US President Barack Obama to sell the deal to Congress. Next year, the Republicans will dominate the Senate and will definitely go through the agreement with Tehran with a fine-toothed comb.
One analyst said any extension “will have to be very short because there are too many hardliners, particularly in Washington and Tehran, that want to sabotage this deal.”
The negotiators must be aware of the minefield that lies ahead, and must tread very, very carefully.