This week, Iran and the P5+1/E3+3 group of world powers are under pressure to produce a comprehensive agreement around the former’s nuclear program by a deadline of Sunday, July 20th, or otherwise agree to extend their existing interim arrangement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were holding direct discussions after several foreign ministers from the P5+1 gathered in Vienna this past weekend to assess progress toward a long-term deal that would provide reassurance that Iran’s program will not be used for producing nuclear weapons. It appears there remain clear gaps between the negotiating parties and that even if a deal is struck, not all in the region may welcome it.
Officials have revealed that some of the remaining blockages between Iran and the P5+1/E3+3 group (made up of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) include disagreement over the duration on the deal’s restrictions, modification of the Arak reactor, and the underground site at Fordow, with the biggest sticking point being how much domestic uranium enrichment capacity Iran should be allowed to retain.
It remains possible that parties might not deem an extension worthwhile and could yet walk away from the table. But this seems unlikely. The parties have much invested in achieving an agreement. The interim deal reflected in the Joint Plan of Action reached last November has already led to more verification measures, the suspension of enrichment up to 20% and the blending down of uranium, thereby controlling Iran’s capability to rapidly manufacture nuclear weapons should they choose in the future to do so. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif made clear during an extensive interview aired yesterday on “Meet the Press” that his country does not “see any benefit” in developing a nuclear weapon. The Joint Plan of Action’s implementation has resulted in the easing of some sanctions against Iran, and a comprehensive deal would bring more relief.
If and when a final agreement comes out, all sides will need to demonstrate that it is a beneficial move made from a position of strength – especially within Iran and the United States where leaders and domestic constituencies are particularly sensitive to appeasing the other side. The fact that seemingly fruitful discussions have been carrying on for almost a year now, in sharp contrast to the previous three and a half decades, has raised the possibility that relations between the two rivals could improve overall. Other recent regional developments have shown that both countries may have growing mutual strategic interests, with the crisis in Iraq and the future of Afghanistan often cited as instances where more cooperation could be useful and possible.
Improved relations between Iran and the United States is not comfortable for U.S. partners in the region. Israel, which sits outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and retains its own undeclared arsenal, criticized the interim agreement reached last November – expressing skepticism about cutting any deal with Iran, whom it sees as contributing to violence in its backyard. Saudi Arabia fears a regional power shift in favor of Iran, and a waning of its own influence with the United States. Speculation continues over Saudi Arabia, a non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT (like Iran), that it might secure its own nuclear weapons. Logically, a solid comprehensive nuclear agreement should alleviate their suspicions, but their trust in the capabilities of the international community to contain Iran is low. Riyadh has been seeking support from other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but has found only the Emirates and Bahrain to be similarly concerned about a deal, symptomatic of a broader shift in strategic relations across the region. Oman and Qatar in particular are more open to a comprehensive deal and improved relations. The United States and other external key powers will need to look for productive, balanced ways to reassure their traditional Mideast partners without producing negative and unintended consequences. Robert Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and National Security Council staff, recently examined in more detail such regional concerns around a nuclear agreement and concludes that those challenges should not dissuade the United States from pursuing a good deal. A RAND study also surveyed the range of likely reactions from Israel and Saudi Arabia after a comprehensive deal would be reached, suggesting that while they would be among the least pleased in the region, they would not attempt to forcefully undermine a deal and would begrudgingly adapt.
A comprehensive nuclear agreement is by no means assured at this point. If talks break down it is highly likely that the security dynamics in the Middle East would become worse for everyone including those currently concerned about the deal, and undermine the health of the non-proliferation regime. Even limited military action, which might become more likely, would spread more instability and violence in the region.
Aware of the extraordinarily fluid strategic challenges at present, Iran and GCC countries have recently increased their diplomatic efforts with each other. This must surely be a good thing. Regional leaders will need to address the numerous deep-seated drivers behind their long-standing insecurity and political concerns, and this will require more direct diplomatic engagement and work with one another.