Will diplomacy prevail?

U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today on the sidelines of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference. Netanyahu announced that the conversation would include the the P5+1 (U.S., UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany) and Iranian nuclear negotiations, which will continue this week at the technical level in Vienna. In the face of all of this, there remains skepticism and opposition to the success of these negotiations and U.S. lawmakers and lobbyists continue to be at odds with each other and the Obama Administration on the issue of additional sanctions against Iran.

Two weeks ago (February 18th-20th), the seven parties met in Vienna for the first round of negotiations since the interim deal was implemented in January. This series of negotiations is expected to last until the summer with the intention to produce a comprehensive nuclear deal that will satisfy both sides. The P5+1 want assurance that Iran is not intending to produce nuclear weapons, and they are tasking the IAEA with inspections of Iran’s facilities for concrete evidence of that. Iran, still determined to maintain a nuclear energy capability, is seeking international recognition of it and pushing for further sanctions relief.

The recent Vienna talks concluded with a road map for the next five months and an agreement on the issues that need to be addressed. Succinct statements from EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif indicated that the negotiating parties are satisfied, but are keeping their cards close to the table to see how things play out over the upcoming weeks.

The wise and honest words of the interim deal (known as the Joint Plan of Action), “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, signal that we have a long road ahead of us. Zarif just last Thursday warned of “problems in terms of substance and approach”. On substance, the talks will continue on the issues of sanctions removal; enrichment quantity, quality and location; the Arak heavy water reactor; and the “normalization” of Iran’s nuclear program. It had emerged, though, at the end of the last round of talks in February that the Americans were pushing to have Iran’s missile program on the agenda. Though Iran made it clear that any substance beyond the nuclear issues would be a non-starter for them. In terms of the approach, the summer deadline is ambitious (being described by a senior American official last month as both a “marathon and a sprint at the same time”), but making it to the finish line on time is not entirely out of the question. Zarif clarified in his statement last week that, “I am hoping by the first deadline we will reach a final deal and to start implementing it…And I can assure you that Iran has that political will and good faith that is required in order to achieve that.”

Unfortunately not everyone is assured by these indicators of success. There has been strong opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the interim deal was first negotiated and some Gulf states, Saudi Arabia in particular, have also openly opposed these negotiations (for more on this, see my article: The Iran Interim Deal: Responses, Potential Impacts, and Moving Forward). It is worth noting that the head of the U.S. Delegation to these nuclear negotiations, Wendy Sherman, left last month’s Vienna talks and went directly to the Middle East, visiting Jerusalem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai to brief officials. This trip highlights the bigger picture about the relationships at stake: the U.S. Administration is desperately trying to juggle their allies and pacify concerns as the U.S. and other P5+1 nations make nice with Iran.

Now, juggling the interests and relations between the P5+1 negotiating partners will prove to be increasingly difficult after this weekend’s developments in Ukraine, as Russia invaded Crimea. This was done in direct violation of the red lines put up by Barack Obama and “provocative statements” from NATO and EU chiefs last week. The severity of this situation should not be understated; the U.S. and NATO allies need to tread carefully in order to reassure Eastern European allies because as it was aptly, yet alarmingly described by Reuters’ Peter Apps: “Western direct military action would risk a war between nuclear superpowers.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed over the weekend, however, that, “The last thing anybody wants is a military option in this kind of situation.” Economic sanctions and a boycott of the Sochi G8 meeting are expected initial reactions.

The delicate situation in Ukraine will dominate the headlines in Washington this week. However, those of us who are keeping one eye cast over nuclear diplomacy will know that this situation could become a way to polarize the messaging on the Iranian negotiations even further by highlighting friction between the U.S. and its P5+1 partners or be used as a criticism of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy acumen.

Back in December and January, the hype on the Hill was the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act (Bill S.1881), but this was put to rest (for the time being) when a Senate floor vote was delayed at the end of January. The supporters were not entirely there (it had 59 out of the necessary 67 Senate supporters), the timing was not right (the negotiations on a comprehensive deal had not been given a chance to get started), and the media backlash was strong. While Obama has been adamantly opposed to new sanctions against Iran, claiming that he will veto any new sanctions bill that is passed, an additional sanctions bill may not necessarily be entirely dead in the water. In a move which has been criticized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev), Senate Republicans last week killed a widely supported and bipartisan Veterans Affairs funding bill by attaching Iran sanctions legislation to it. Furthermore, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose lobbyists assisted in attracting the 59 co-sponsors for the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act, began to make noise on the issue again ahead of their annual conference this week. It was reported that the lobbyist group may not push for a floor vote right away, but they will continue to look for more co-sponsors in order to get the numbers that they need. Hill critics of sanctions, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have urged colleagues to “give diplomacy a chance” and let the negotiations play out.

Echoing these same sentiments, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday urged the (mostly hardliner) members of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards to put aside their hostility towards the negotiations and let diplomacy prevail. He also stated that aggression and weapons of mass destruction were a red line for Iran. Rouhani has experienced adversity from hardliners within his country for being too close to the West. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been vocal in defending the President and requested that critics of the government remain tolerant. However, just before these diplomatic negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal began in February, he was clear to express his skepticism that they would amount to anything.

The P5+1 will meet with Iran again to continue the high-level negotiations on March 17th in Vienna. It took almost a decade to get out of the gates, and now that we can actually visualize a finish line things are looking up. Admittedly, though, it is more than political will and good faith that has got the negotiations to this point. The personalities involved on the Iranian side and the support from the Obama Administration have been monumental in pushing these negotiations forward. Their approach towards these talks and towards one another has been key. Whilst maintaining diplomatic prowess, the negotiating nations are taking an approach based on engagement, finding common ground to start from, and recognizing the bigger picture in order to make progress. The bigger picture in this case is not just Iran’s nuclear program or the sanctions involved: the bigger picture is the rejuvenation of relationships between Iran and the West, a chance to further peaceful incentives in the Middle East, and advance global non-proliferation goals.

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