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With stalemate looming, Iran needs nuclear deal more than US (+video)

Nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers are almost certain to go on past Tuesday's deadline, making a stalemate increasingly likely.

With the Iran nuclear talks almost certain to grind on past a Tuesday deadline, prospects for a stalemate that puts off further efforts to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear program appear to be growing.  

If the two sides in the talks – six world powers and Iran – do walk away from the negotiating table, even if for just a matter of weeks, the pause will largely reflect the economic and political crosscurrents the Iranian leadership is navigating, some regional analysts say.

“The supreme leader is in a dilemma” that juxtaposes dueling economic and political “imperatives,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Allowing the talks to enter a stalemate, with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program going unresolved for additional months or longer, is a bigger problem for Iran than for the US and other world powers, some experts say.

“Iran clearly needs this deal [while] the US wants this deal,” says Mr. Sadjadpour, underscoring what he calls the “asymmetry” in the importance a deal represents to the two sides.

Iran’s hard-hit economy would receive a substantial boost if international sanctions were lifted under a nuclear deal,  Sadjadpour says. But at the same time, Mr. Khamenei’s hard-line political base would find it hard to swallow a deal that offers too much compromise to Western powers, and in particular the United States.

Khamenei is presented with “an economic imperative to sign the deal” while “hardliners [represent] a political imperative to continue to resist the US,” says Sadjadpour. At some point, he adds, those two motivating factors “are irreconcilable.”

The world could know on Tuesday how Khamenei has decided to address the dueling pressures, at least for now. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who left the talks in Vienna on Sunday for consultations back in Tehran, is expected back Tuesday with either an “aye” or a “nay” in his pocket to wrap up negotiations under the terms of a “framework” agreement reached in April.   

Last week, Khamenei gave a speech in which he laid down “red lines” for a final nuclear deal – most notably ruling out inspections of military sites as part of any inspections regime – that appeared to be at odds with what Iran agreed to in April.

Resolving the outstanding areas of disagreement remains possible, if not by the Tuesday deadline then within the first few days of July, backers of a deal as laid out in the framework agreement say.

“Negotiators are focused on completing the deal by June 30, but more important is getting the details of the deal right,” says Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association (ACA) in Washington.

Ms. Davenport, who is in Vienna for the talks, says the two sides are “on their way to reaching agreement on the technical implementation” of key outstanding issues “within the next several days.” The requirements of the two sides “overlap just enough” to allow for meeting core demands and a comprehensive deal, ACA experts say.

As for Khamenei’s “red lines,” Davenport says they were “not helpful” but that the supreme leader has made “similar comments in the past” that turned out to be more political positioning than unbendable requirements.

But others who see this as a defining moment for Iran are not so sure.

Based on the turn of events at other pivotal moments in the decade of on-and-off negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, Foreign Minister Zarif may very well return from presenting Khamenei with the world powers’ bottom line and say, “ ‘Sorry, I’ve just been in Tehran ... and we can’t do that,’ ” says George Perkovich, vice president for studies and nuclear nonproliferation expert at Carnegie Endowment.

If that happens, Dr. Perkovich says he would expect the talks to break off and for Secretary of State John Kerry to return to Washington to allow the administration to consider what to do next.

“It’s not the worst thing for Kerry to come home and for there to be a pause in the process,” says Perkovich, who adds that he does not “expect the next couple of days to yield an agreement.”

Iranian leaders insisted over the weekend that their country is not desperate to reach an accord with the six world powers. “Do not think that Iran needs a deal,” said Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, in comments Sunday on an official broadcast. “I do not want [the West] to think that if you exert more pressure, Iran will tolerate it.”

But others say Iran’s economic straits and broad public support for a deal belie such bravado.   

President Obama would still like to secure a nuclear deal with Iran as part of a legacy of “reconciliation,” Sadjadpour says. But he says that in any case the US has impressed its partners in the talks, including Russia and China, that it truly does want a deal with Iran – and he says that will continue to color relations among the six powers even if the nuclear talks enter a period of stalemate.

“There’s a sense that Washington has made unprecedented overtures to Iran,” he says.

On the other hand, failure to reach a deal is likely to soon enough return the US-Iran relationship to one of open confrontation, others say. An Iran outside the limitations of ongoing negotiations might re-accelerate its nuclear program and advance its steps toward nuclear weapons capability.

“If the negotiations fail to the point of an open break … the resulting failure will make all of the current tensions far worse,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says in a post on the CSIS website Monday. “Any such end to the talks will again raise the issue of Israeli or US preventive strikes.”  

But unlike Obama’s hoped-for legacy of reconciliation, Sadjadpour says Khamenei, who is likely entering the twilight of his reign, is tending “a legacy almost of resistance.”

If no deal is reached this week, Perkovich says the world also has to consider the Iranian perspective that past experience with the West’s covert operations has made backing down on red lines “really difficult.”

Putting himself in Iranian shoes, Perkovich says, “You want to visit our scientists so you can assassinate them … You want to visit our military sites so you can know where to target us militarily.”

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