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Situation Assessment 10 December, 2014

Iranian Nuclear Program Negotiations: Where Next?

Mahjoob Zweiri

Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri is the Head of Humanities Department at Qatar University and is an assistant professor in Contemporary History of the Middle East. He is also a visiting professor to School of Government & International Affairs at Durham University. Previously he was an expert in Middle East Politics and Iran at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. He holds a PhD in the Modern History of Iran from Tehran University (2002). From March 2003-December 2006 he was a research fellow and then director of the Centre for Iranian Studies in the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University. His areas of research are Middle East politics and security domestic politics of Iran Iran’s foreign policy Iran-Arab relations Shi’asim political Islam and new media and politics in the Middle East. In addition to Arabic Dr. Zweiri is fluent in Farsi and English and has been extensively published in various journals including Middle Eastern Studies Middle East Policy The Journal of North African Studies The Journal of Middle Eastern Geopolitics Geopolitical Affairs Asian Politics and Policy and Third World Quarterly. Some of his other publications include “The Tenth Iranian Presidential Elections and their Regional Implications” (August 2010) written for the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies Iran’s Foreign Policy: from Khatami to Ahmadinejad (2008) joint editor Iran and the Rise of Its Neoconservatives: The politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution (2007) co-author.

Introduction

Expectations were high that the latest round of negotiations held in Vienna in November between Iran, Germany and the five permanent member states of the Security Council –the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China – would conclude with an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. Resilient dialogue between Washington and Tehran, whether via letters between President Obama and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, telephone calls between President Obama and President Rouhani, or the frequent communications between the Iranian and US Foreign Ministers, were promising signs of a potential deal finally being reached. Yet, after almost a year of talks, negotiators have once again extended talks for a comprehensive agreement, this time until July 2015. This case analysis discusses the wider course of negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program spanning more than a decade. It then attempts to understand what has been achieved in the latest round of negotiations following the Geneva Agreement[1] signed on November 30, 2013. It concludes by offering likely scenarios for the negotiating process over the coming seven months.

Negotiations with Europe

The Iranian nuclear program, the first images of which appeared in 2002,[2] set Tehran a new challenge with an international community already anxious over Iranian political behavior. Left with no option but to come out and discuss its nuclear program, Iran realized that negotiations were necessary to achieve two ends: to dispel doubts over the objectives of the program and to prevent an international coalition against Iran, as happened with Iraq. In the first phase of negotiations, Iran entered talks exclusively with the United Kingdom, France and Germany, in an attempt to stymie American efforts against it. In doing so, it also hoped to tactically create a divide between Europe and Washington, whilst simultaneously sustain the image of America as the “great Satan” to cater to its domestic audience. These initial negotiations took place during the government of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and led by the then chairman of the National Security Council and current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. These were soon to come to a halt, however, once Ahmadinejad was elected president. Set on a firm path of confrontation with the West, in his first days of presidency, Ahmadinejad decided to continue uranium enrichment, thus challenging Khatami’s resolve to halt it as a goodwill gesture in his last months of presidency[3].

With President Ahmadinejad in office, domestic challenges started to emerge for Iran’s political regime. Demonstrations in Iran erupted against Ahmadinejad, his handling of the reformist trend and its exclusion from the political scene, the monopolization by the conservatives of the levers of state, the militarization of the political scene, as well as the deteriorating economic situation resulting from the sanctions imposed on Iran – all of which coalesced to create a fraught political scene. Meanwhile, the international community, led by the United States, was growing increasingly unnerved with the hostility pouring out of Iranian President Ahmadinejad towards the West and Israel, and his call for Israel to be wiped off the map in a speech he gave in 2005. In response, the United States, in unison with the three states that had participated in the negotiations with Iran, decided to opt for economic sanctions. Post 2005, the Security Council imposed three packages of international sanctions through Security Council Resolutions 1737, 1747, and 1835.[4] Sanctions were essentially meant to signal the end of negotiations. In fact, what actually happened was that sanctions opened up the second chapter of talks, which were attended by the United States along with Russia and China, thus bringing the five permanent members of the Security Council alongside Germany.

The presence of the United States at the negotiation table worried Iran’s political regime – the regime had to somehow justify America’s presence to its public. It did so by stressing its own regional policy of influence in Iraq and Lebanon, and its ability to sabotage the plans of the United States. The narrative concocted by the regime portrayed an Iran that stood strong and powerful at the negotiation table, armed with foreign policy superiority in other areas no less important that the Iranian nuclear program.

 

In this period, numerous political messages were exchanged between Iran and the United States via European intermediaries or through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose reports on Iran’s nuclear program reflected the Western mindset. Russia also had its seat at the negotiating table, confident that this was the best choice to solve the challenge of the Iranian nuclear program. The Russians were however critical of the United States, and its insistence that the sanctions option would force Iran to respond to the demands of the international community – which did not turn out to be true until after 2012. It is important to note that negotiations between Iran and Britain, France and Germany – countries Iran did not particularly trust – were viewed by the EU states as mediatory efforts. Iran, on the other hand, was trying to send political signals to the United States, its Arab neighbors and Turkey that it was talking to the “big boys”, and that the policy of international isolation propagated by Washington meant little beyond words.

In the end, mediation efforts failed, sanctions rapidly tightened the Iranian economy, and talk of the possibility of European mediation playing a role in solving the Iranian nuclear issue rapidly dwindled. Iran, perhaps conveniently, saw in this proof of the West’s hostility. President Ahmadinejad meanwhile was preparing for a second presidential term, and it was clear that Iranian political discourse during his tenure in office was largely hostile, which made for a harsh Western response as demonstrated by the adoption of sanctions.

 

To continue reading this Analysis or to download it as a PDF, please click here. This Case Analysis was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on November 28, 2014, please click here.


[1] Joint Plan of Action, http://eeas.europa.eu/statements/docs/2013/131124_03_en.pdf; see also: “Agreement over nuclear issues between Iran and the major powers,” Al-Jazeera Net, November 24, 2014, http://bit.ly/1vmDPDs.

[2] To view images of the Iranian nuclear program, see http://www.isisnucleariran.org/sites/detail/natanz/.

[3] For more details, see: Mahjoob Zweiri, “Iranian Nuclear Programme... Has the Countdown to Military Confrontation Begun?” http://bit.ly/1vQJCED.

[4] For more on the sanctions imposed by the Security Council on Iran see: http://www.un.org/sc/committees/1737/resolutions.shtml.