By Abdel Bari Atwan
The so-called ‘last chance’ Vienna negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions have ended with nothing more than an agreement to extend the ‘deadline’ until the end of June. Nothing new here, then, since this has been the pattern for the past ten years.
Six world powers (China, france, Germany, Russia, USA and UK) are seeking to secure a guarantee from Iran that it will curb its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions being lifted. Clearly neither side has conceded anything or made any acceptable offers.
If we look at this in terms of profit and loss, Iran has made some gains.
Sticking with the status quo means that Iran’s uranium enrichment will continue, and its centrifuges will continue to function without interruption, and Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will remain securely in place.
Meanwhile, operations at the new heavy water reactor at Arak, which Tehran agreed to freeze last November, could start as soon as the plant is ready. The six powers asked for the project to be scrapped entirely. Arak’s 40-MWt capacity makes it a proliferation concern because it coud produce enough plutonium for nuclear weapons[i].
However, Iran loses too because of the continuation of economic sanctions which remain crippling, despite being relaxed somewhat in last November’s talks. Over the 12 years they have been in place they have crippled the Iranian economy (particularly those concerning oil exports which have seen Iran’s revenue drop by 60%) and crashed its currency, making international financial transaction almost impossible, causing great damage to Iran’s development plans, and aggravating the hardship of the Iranian people.
Iran’s economy has been put under further strain by the recent drop in oil prices to under $80 per barrel and by the financial commitments it has incurred by supporting it ally in Damascus, President Assad, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shia bloc in Iraq.
It is true that Iran won an important concession from the Vienna negotiations: by agreeing to extent the existing interim agreement, it assured itself of sanctions relief in the form of income from assets frozein in American banks and worth some $700 million dollars a month; but the amount is of limited importance and far below the ceiling of Iranian demands.
Iran’s main negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, insisted throughout the talks that all sanctions should be lifted permanently and immediately rather than step by step as the US is insisting.
These negotiations have been largely dominated by politics, especially as the US and Iran find themselves on opposite sides of the ever widening Sunni-Shia divide at the heart of the chaos enveloping the Middle East – particularly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The fact that President Obama is now outnumbered by Republicans in the Senate following recent elections also means that his negotiator, John Kerry, had less room to manouevre. Republicans tend to be more hawkish where Iran is concerned and are suggesting that Tehran is simply playing for time.
All that can be deduced from the current round of talks is that the US and its Western allies wish to continue the dialogue with Iran, and that it recognizes Iran as a major regional power. Hassan Rohani, the Iranian President, addressed the nation on television saying that a deal would evenutally be made to end sanctions – there is a growing movement in Iran against sanctions – but cast the deadlock as a victory emphasizing that ‘the centrifuges are spinning and will never stop’.
Iran has become used to employing evasive tactics and maneuvers and has remained undaunted by all American (and Israeli) military threats. In its bid to achieve what it requires, Tehran will not find it difficult to survive sanctions a few more months.
Despite the bad tempers and stubborness displayed by both Iran and the US in Vienna, the fact that talks continue at all indicates a desire by both to draw closer. Given that China and Russia are also party to this rapprochement we have to ask one very important question: Where does this leave the so-called Sunni bloc of Arab countries, headed by Saudi Arabia, in terms of politics and diplomacy?
We leave the answer to you!