The parties – Iran and the P5+1 (the US, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain) – resumed yesterday in Geneva. The talks are scheduled to conclude tomorrow. Cautious optimism is still warranted, but the negotiations are taking place in the shadow of complex developments in Washington DC and the Middle East.
The broad contours of a deal look the same now as they did ten days ago. Iran would receive some light relief from the sanctions regime that is, at present, cutting it off from global energy and financial markets. In exchange, Iran would cease production of uranium concentrated at 20 per cent – and cease the development of the infrastructure that enables it to enrich at that level – for a six-month period. Iran would still, during that time, be able to enrich at the much lower level of 3.5 per cent.
In addition, Iran would grant greater access to international inspectors and would, perhaps, agree to convert some of its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium. During those six months, further negotiations would attempt to move the parties towards a longer-term solution to one of the most intractable foreign policy problems.
Hence, any deal arrived at tomorrow would be an interim arrangement only. Its purpose would be to create time and space for further negotiations and, crucially, to test the good faith of the Iranian regime.
Ten days ago, France broke ranks and refused to sign up to the deal. The two main sticking points were Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak, which once operational could produce plutonium, and its demand that the P5+1 recognise its right to enrich uranium. The Arak reactor is the trickier of the two now that Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, has said his government requires no formal declaration of a right to enrich. The Iranian negotiators offered to refrain from loading fuel into the Arak reactor during the six-month period, while continuing its construction.
Despite a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that highlighted significant problems with the reactor, and suggested it would not be operational until late 2014 at the earliest, Arak could well remain a sticking point.
It is understood by those close to the negotiations that France is no longer a holdout. This is crucial because agreement among the P5+1 is essential for any deal. Having had their “tough-man” moments and, crucially, having signalled that “toughness” to Israel and Saudi Arabia, perhaps now the French president and foreign minister are ready to deal with a sense of realism.
Indeed, it is realism that has got us to this point. A realistic approach to foreign policy must first ask what is in the national interest and then ask what is the most prudent way of attaining those interests. For the P5+1 the over-riding interest is to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
Beyond that, it is in the collective interest of the P5+1 to avoid military conflict. The lesser evil, in short, is a diplomatic settlement. These negotiations are a pragmatic first step in that direction and will play a crucial testing and verification role that must not be underestimated.
For Iran, there is undoubtedly an interest in securing relief from sanctions. But relief cannot come at the cost of a complete climb-down and utter humiliation. That is not to suggest that Iran should be treated leniently, or that the new regime of Hasan Rouhani should be trusted. Iran was caught failing to report enrichment and reprocessing activities to the IAEA for 18 years. Scepticism is thus warranted.
But scepticism should not be the enemy of negotiation. The best way to undo the positive steps taken would be to apply further sanctions, as some in the US Congress advocate. It now seems that Congress will not move to impose new sanctions until next month at the earliest. But the hawkish shadow cast by the discourse of several leading US senators is far from helpful. The notion of offering Iran relief from future sanctions that have not been imposed yet, in exchange for a cessation of all enrichment activity, are less about negotiating than dictating.
Such a stance demonstrates a failure to appreciate what is politically feasible for those who sit across from you at the negotiating table. Fail to appreciate that and you make it almost impossible to deliver a deal.
Even more unrealistic is the stance of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Thankfully shut out of the negotiations, he is standing on the sidelines, hollering for attention and doing his best to scupper any chance for an agreement. He is not interested in any deal that would satisfy the most basic demands of Iran, and indeed prefers a path that might ultimately end in military strikes against Iranian facilities at Arak and, more problematically given their locations, Natanz and Fordow. This is not a foreign policy of realism but rather a foreign policy of threat, fear and force underpinned by inflexible ideational commitments.
Such opposition – not just from Israel but also from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt among others – could still derail the negotiations. Broader geopolitical fears of Iranian power, and the Sunni-Shia rift that underpins so much of the turmoil currently gripping the region, shape much of this reaction. There are thus major obstacles within the P5+1 (especially in Washington), and without.
The politics of the lesser evil and a prudent realism ought to guide negotiators in the coming days. Continuing with diplomatic measures are preferable to bellicosity and threats of military force.
Representatives of the P5+1 must fight back strongly and uniformly against extremist voices, whether they emanate from Jerusalem, Riyadh, or Washington. And it must be remembered that any interim deal is a test of the Iranian regime. You absolutely cannot trust them. You must test and then verify. The devil, therefore, will be in the detail of any deal that emerges tomorrow.
• Dr Daniel Kenealy is deputy director and lecturer in international politics at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government