The US-Iran talks transcend the nuclear issue


    THE second deadline to reach a final agreement on Iran’s controversial nuclear program has expired, with both Iran and the six world powers agreeing on a second extension that gives them seven months to reach a comprehensive agreement. Negotiators agreed to conclude by March 1 what both sides need to do and by when, which would be followed by a formalized agreement four months later. In the meantime, Tehran will be able to continue to access around $700 million per month in sanctions relief.

    The United States and Iran were not expected to reach a final agreement by the Nov. 24 deadline. What is more important is that the negotiations have reached a point where both sides have an interest in continuing discussions until they reach a settlement. In the long run, the nuclear issue is not as important for either side as the regional dynamics are.

    The main question about the talks is whether the next few months will be enough time to reach a comprehensive settlement. US Secretary of State John Kerry, while praising his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, and stating that “real and substantial progress” had been made, warned of tough times ahead. “These talks are not going to get easier just because we extend them. They are tough, they’ve been tough, and they are going to stay tough,” said Kerry, adding that it is even possible that the talks could end without an agreement.

    The nuclear negotiations undoubtedly represent a challenge to all the stakeholders, but there is a general tendency to inflate their value. The negotiations are about finding a way to formalize an agreement that has already been reached by the two sides. (Despite the involvement of other powers, the real parties to the conflict are the United States and Iran.) Washington and Tehran have agreed to end their 35-year hostile relationship, allowing the Islamic republic to begin international rehabilitation.

    But the question is how to put this into operation. The Americans and the Iranians know that the first step is to tackle the controversy over Tehran’s nuclear program. Even on this thorny subject the United States has agreed that Iran will have a civilian nuclear program — one that cannot be diverted toward military use. What we see happening currently is the working out of the details. This is where politics becomes more important than geopolitics. Both sides need to make sure that the language of the final agreement is acceptable to the important parties in their domestic political arenas. Moreover, the United States needs to make sure that its regional partners — including Israel and the Arab states — can live with the deal.

    This stage of talks is where issues such as the number of centrifuges, levels of enrichment, scope of sanctions relief and the like come into play. By no means are these matters trivial, as is evident from the fact that a final agreement will not be reached until at least a year after the original deadline. However, what is far more significant is that the talks are at a stage where U.S.-Iranian diplomacy has become a routine affair — a development that remains underappreciated.

    US and Iranian interests in the Middle East have been converging for several years. Most recently, the rise of the transnational jihadist movement, the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq represents a common threat. Cognizant that it cannot militarily deal with the problems of the region, the United States needs local actors to play a bigger role in containing regional fragmentation. Iran (along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia) is one such player and has an interest in preventing jihadists from taking advantage of the growing meltdown in the largely Arab Middle East.

    Many hurdles will prevent the United States and Iran from normalizing relations for a long time to come. But they both know they have to deal with one another in pursuit of their respective aims. The nuclear talks are part of the more important process of finding an arrangement in which they can do so.


    Republishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission of STRATFOR.


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