Time Running Out for Iran Nuke Negotiations

Ed note.  I’m pleased to welcome Homa Hassan to Dispatch. Ms. Hassan has Master of International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she was a fellow of American foreign policy. She is a former Scoville fellow on nuclear nonproliferation and global security and currently works at the Inter-American Development Bank. 

The U.S.-Iran relationship is littered with missed opportunities to normalize relations.  Now the P5+1-Iran interim deal, an attempt to draft an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, is set to expire on July 20, with the possibility for an extension.  But with Deputy Secretary Bill Burns (who has led back channel efforts) and EU high representative Catherine Ashton (who has negotiated with Iran since talks resumed in 2011) set to retire this year, upcoming Congressional elections, and two years left of an administration willing to negotiate with Iran, one thing is clear: time to reach a deal is running out.

Iran will only become more significant in global politics in the coming decade; therefore both sides need to step it up in negotiations toward a deal able to weather upcoming changes before the opportunity is lost.

Having both Western powers and Iranian leaders not only on speaking terms, but also on large-scale, publicized negotiating terms is not something to be taken for granted.  Decades of bad blood between the U.S. and Iran made it virtually impossible to envision any form of reconciliation. Even now, hawks in both Congress and Iran’s leadership are driving high bargains.

But Congressional elections at the end of this year could bring more aggressive stances on Iran or a call for more sanctions that would derail further negotiations. And with only two years left of the administration willing to engage, if Republicans take over both houses of Congress in November, they could make negotiations much harder for the administration to navigate.  Currently, Iran has halted its uranium enrichment and all enrichment processes are under IAEA surveillance for the duration of the talks.  For better or worse, the negotiating environment we have right now might be the best environment we’ll ever have.

Coming to an agreement is not only significant for nuclear nonproliferation. Iran’s influence in global affairs is expanding.  Iran has already been highly influential in Syria’s civil war, helping Assad maintain his ground. Iran’s leadership has been vocal in supporting a two-state solution in the ongoing Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.  Iran retains bilateral trade relations with Afghanistan and provides crude oil imports to India while India provides port use for Iranian access to Russia and Europe. With the U.S. and Russia on strained terms over Ukrainian sovereignty, broken negotiations could push Iran further back into Russia’s arms where it found solace in light of Western sanctions over the last few decades.

The complexity of the issues being discussed make it all the more difficult to come to an agreement. However, Western powers ought to consider the influence Iran will have on geopolitics, like it or not, and aim for incremental gains.  Iran should consider the crushing effects of sanctions and what it has to gain domestically with a deal on the horizon.  Both sides should remember that if the dynamics are the best we’ll possibly ever have to negotiate, no one can afford to squander the opportunity.