After more than a decade of diplomatic tug-of-war, the final rounds of Iran nuclear talks begin tomorrow in Vienna aimed at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program will be peaceful.
Iran is negotiating limits on its nuclear advances with six world powers in exchange for a lifting of crippling sanctions. But hardliners in both Iran and the US are suspicious even of the talks, never mind the prospect of compromise or doing a deal with rivals long portrayed as the enemy.
Both Iran and the members of the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) say they are ready to deal. And for the US and Iran, the latest talks are also an initial litmus test of the chances of easing 35 years of mutual hostility.
“The goal of the talks is to find a middle ground, where both sides could declare victory,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The reality is there are solutions for all the technical problems in the way to reaching a comprehensive deal. The dilemma is that the same cannot be said about the underlying political differences…. The diplomatic process is as fragile as the forces against it are formidable.”
Those differences were obvious during the two-year build-up to an interim nuclear deal signed Nov. 24 last year in Geneva. Iran agreed to receive modest sanctions relief for six months in exchange for suspending its most sensitive nuclear work – enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, and conversion of its stockpile of the stuff into fuel which has no military application.
In response to the deal the US Congress stepped up rhetoric about the need for sanctions pressure, finally provoking a warning from President Barack Obama that he would veto any further sanctions legislation as long as talks continue.
In Tehran, fundamentalists opposed to any dealings with the US and the West attacked the talks in newspapers and on the floor of parliament, threatening to step up Iranian enrichment levels to 60 percent purity – far closer to weapons-grade – and denouncing the Geneva deal as a “rip off” for Iran.
The interim deal calls for a final agreement in which Iran accepts far more intrusive inspections to ensure the peaceful nature of its program and gets de facto recognition of the right to enrich uranium on its soil commensurate with its “needs.”
Skepticism abounds. Today Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated the he did not oppose the talks. He also said that he did "not expect any outcome from the negotiations,” according to the semi-official Mehr News Agency.
Mr. Khamenei said Iran would “never submit” to the “dominance front, although some try to depict a good face for [the] US as a friend of humanity.” Last week Khamenei said the US would carry out regime change in Iran “in a second” if it could, though he has authorized all direct US-Iran contact up to now.
To secure a deal, both Mr. Obama and the centrist Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will have to keep their own hard-line provocateurs in check. But analysts say the constellation of leaders willing and capable of making a deal is as good as it has been.
“I believe at the moment is a golden time,” says Sadegh Kharazi, a former Iranian ambassador who drafted a secret overture to the US in 2003, has close family ties to Khamenei, and runs the IRDiplomacy web site.
Positive signs include “the connectivity and relationship between the president and leader, and very importantly the people of Iran – the reformists, and rational conservatives believe in both sides making compromises,” says Mr. Kharazi, in an interview in Tehran. “More than 70 percent of Iranians would like a
solution, but it depends on American reactions.”
Failure to make a deal in this new set of talks would yield a renewed state of confrontation that could mean little progress for another 20 years, says Kharazi. “If America does anything [more] with sanctions, it will end the process.”
There may also be mismatched expectations, if recent rhetoric is any guide. Top US officials have spoken of Iran “dismantling” and “rolling back” key aspects of its nuclear work, and some analysts in Washington have suggested a cap on centrifuge numbers at 3,000 to 4,000.
Mr. Rouhani has said that Iran will not accept a slimming down of any aspect of its nuclear work, which today includes more than 19,000 installed centrifuges, though less than half are in operation, according to UN nuclear inspectors. The Rouhani team “think we can have a win-win game, but it is more complicated than that,” says Amir Mohebian, a conservative analyst and editor with close ties to Iran’s ruling elite. He is critical of the current approach, which he says will not yield results.
“The Iranian people are tired, but they don’t want to give everything they have,” says Mr. Mohebian. Iranian officials said this week the first round of comprehensive talks in Vienna could focus on the future status of new and advanced centrifuges, and that of the Arak heavy water reactor which remains under construction and will produce plutonium – a potential alternative path to a nuclear weapon. Iran says it rejects nuclear arms.
“The best way to give Iran an opening is to keep pulling on the string that Iran is offering, which is a civilian nuclear program,” says Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. The Geneva deal “played up” Iran’s civilian nuclear program and “promises Iran technology for light water reactors, it promises Iran assistance in the long term,” he says.
“One of the big questions though is, ‘What does the next stage look like?’” asks Joshi. “Is it a comprehensive agreement? Or is it a staged succession of more interim deals? I don’t think we can renew this deal without Congress going crazy, but I do think we can achieve another stage of progress.”
[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the location of the upcoming peace talks.]