Although the timing of the extension exposes the diplomatic process to unwanted risks, there is still hope for resolving Iran's nuclear deal.
As the Iranian nuclear talks entered their last day on Monday, no side shifted on their “non-negotiables” to allow for a final deal – but substantive progress had been made to convince all sides that an extension of their self-imposed deadline was desirable. The talks in Vienna closed with Iran and the EU3+3 (that is, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and the United States) announcing that they had agreed to continue negotiating for another seven months, with the intention of agreeing to the political framework of the final deal before then.
The talks in Vienna closed with Iran and the EU3+3 announcing that they had agreed to continue negotiating for another seven months.
An extension of the November deadline had been on the cards, but its duration was expected by some to be much shorter than that announced because of the numerous challenges that both sides will now face. To achieve a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, either a deal or a shorter rollover of the talks would have been a more desirable outcome. But continuing the talks should not be seen as a defeat: there are compelling reasons to prefer an extension over unpalatable alternatives that risk further undermining the prospects for stability in the Middle East.
While limited information has been made public, the process for the next phase of these nuclear talks can be outlined as follows:
1. Formal extension: the interim nuclear deal agreed under the Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) a year ago in Geneva will be formally extended until 30 June 2015. This follows the first extension to the JPoA in July 2014, when Iran and the EU3+3 made additional commitments beyond the original scope of the JPoA (click here for the explainer of that extension).
2. Freeze and cash swap: Iran has agreed to halt its nuclear programme under the terms outlined in the JPoA’s July extension. In return, the EU3+3 will provide Iran access to roughly $700 million per month (a total of roughly $5 billion) of frozen assets. This is the same monthly amount that Iran obtained under the JPoA. However, unlike the July extension, Iran is not taking on additional obligations. This is a reasonable result, given that Tehran has effectively agreed to freeze its nuclear activities without further development for another seven months in exchange for gaining access to its own money without additional sanctions relief.
3. Rough timeline: negotiators are expected to reconvene in December at lower political levels for technical talks with the aim of drafting the parameters of the final deal within four months. The remaining time is to be used to complete technical annexes. If there is no agreement on the framework for a deal by March, the parties will reassess their positions
To achieve a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, either a deal or a shorter rollover of the talks would have been a more desirable outcome.
Before Monday’s announcement, it was anticipated by many that a second extension to the JPoA would be limited to weeks rather than months. This suggests that in the final days of the talks, new ideas may have been proposed on how best to resolve the most difficult outstanding issues: Iran’s enrichment capacity and the timing of sanctions relief. These would, in turn, require rethinking the various elements that would be packaged into a final deal, which is often described as a “Rubik’s cube” because of the complexity and intricacy of finding an acceptable solution.
The decision to extend the nuclear talks reflects the continued commitment of both sides to reach a comprehensive agreement within a time-bound process. This is a process in which substantive progress has been made on differences that were once thought unbridgeable and in which Iran has proven that it can deliver under the JPoA. US Secretary of State John Kerry noted yesterday that negotiators would be “fools” to walk away from the talks at this stage because the JPoA has provided the “benefit of the doubt” that a final deal can be achieved.
An extension is clearly better than failure to reach a deal at all, a scenario in which both sides could reverted to a hostile stance, with Iran upping its enrichment programme while the West imposes more extensive sanctions. The rollover of the JPoA benefits the EU3+3 by ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme remains subject to inspection and verification and its enrichment capacity is capped in return for minimal financial relief to Iran. Meanwhile Iran can continue its civilian nuclear research and development and entrench what it claims to be its right to enrichment. It should also be underlined that the last year of talks has provided a serious and professional platform for Iran and the West to reshape their previous relations, which were plagued by deep mistrust, into a potentially functional relationship. If the two sides continue to deal on the nuclear issue in good faith, this extension could contribute to a longer-term normalising effect that creates openings for meaningful discourse on escalating regional conflicts.
The decision to extend the nuclear talks reflects the continued commitment of both sides to reach a comprehensive agreement within a time-bound process.
However, as outlined elsewhere, repeated extensions of these talks are not ideal and carry risks. The biggest concern is how the opposition forces on both sides can be managed. The US administration in particular will have to deal with problems at home: President Barack Obama now faces a lame duck Congress, and there are strong indications that, amongst the Republicans who will take charge of both houses in Congress come January, there are influential candidates who wish to see the nuclear talks fail and who will support new sanctions against Iran to make that happen. While fierce opposition to a final deal is always present in Tehran, as Monday’s deadline for talks approached, Iranian hardliners were reportedly reined in by the office of the Supreme Leader and induced to tone down their harsh and vocal opposition to a final nuclear deal. Both Tehran and Washington will be gearing up for a domestic backlash to this extension, which is likely to escalate if the US administration is unable to prevent Congress from imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran. If the political parameters of a final deal can indeed be outlined in the coming months, it will boost the momentum of the talks, which is likely to diminish the longer the negotiations continue.
In the last four days of the talks, the foreign ministers of each of the negotiating countries (in addition to those of Saudi Arabia and Oman) made appearances in Vienna for consultation. The White House issued closed-door briefings preparing allies in Congress to back an extension.
Both Tehran and Washington will be gearing up for a domestic backlash to this extension.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, claimed over the weekend that the option of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities remains a viable option and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the extension by stating “this result is better, a lot better” than the terms of the deal that were previously under discussion. These events underscore the high degree of importance placed on these talks by both opponents and supporters of a final nuclear deal who will be looking carefully for opportunities to make their voices heard during the extension period.
Up until now, it has seemed that leadership and influential actors in both Iran and the EU3+3 each believe they are in the position of greater strength. While Iran believes that recent events in the region have bolstered its position of dominance in the negotiations, the West is convinced that its sanctions policy can extract greater concessions from Iran. Both sides are determined that the other should and will compromise on areas previously claimed to be non-negotiable. This is an unsettling prospect for these talks; it reduces the flexibility required for the painful concessions that will have to be made by both sides. If there is to be a comprehensive agreement, whether in the immediate or the distant future, leaders in the EU3+3 and Iran need to allow more political space for their negotiators to settle the nuclear file. Otherwise, they risk waiting so long for the opposing side to blink first that they gamble away an opportunity for a final deal that would without doubt strengthen global security.