Iran and the major powers held an intense round of talks in Vienna from June 16 to 20 in pursuit of a comprehensive deal to resolve the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program, which has dragged on for over a decade.
As I observed while covering the discussions in the Austrian capital for the Tehran Times, diplomats from both sides were seriously engaged in the talks and seemed determined to find a way to settle the issue.
But yet again, only a moderate amount of progress was made in the most recent round of talks, and the two sides only managed to draw up a “working document” which is “heavily bracketed” due to the remaining disagreements.
It seems that the major powers’ unrealistic demands with regard to Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity under a comprehensive nuclear deal have hindered the progress of the negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), which are meant to build on a landmark interim nuclear deal they clinched last November in Geneva.
The United States, France, Britain, and Germany would like the number of centrifuge machines that Iran would maintain under a final deal to be in the low thousands, while Tehran says its needs tens of thousands of centrifuges in operation in order to supply domestically produced nuclear fuel for its Bushehr nuclear power plant and a network of nuclear powers plants it plans to build in the future.
The main stumbling block to reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement by the July 20 deadline set under the Geneva deal is the issue of the number of centrifuges, although there are some other sticking points, including the types of centrifuges Iran uses, the mechanism for lifting the sanctions, and the duration of the implementation of the final deal.
The major powers must take some important points into consideration if they don’t want to lose the best chance so far to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who enjoys great popular support in Iran, has adopted the policy of engaging in serious nuclear negotiations with the major powers with the goal of attaining a win-win solution and has appointed the country’s most competent diplomats as nuclear negotiators to implement the policy.
The Western powers must understand that the Iranian people believe that the country’s negotiators are pursuing the process of talks in good faith and are doing their utmost to provide assurances that Tehran’s nuclear program will remain totally peaceful in order to secure the lifting of the draconian sanctions that have been imposed on the country.
If the talks collapse due to the major powers’ unrealistic demands, while Iran has fulfilled all its commitments under the Geneva deal to scale down some parts of its nuclear program and has fully cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency in its thorough inspections of the country’s nuclear activities, no one in Iran will blame the Rouhani administration for the failure of the talks, and the people’s support for the administration will make it easier for the president to deal with the pressure that would be exerted by the Western powers. After all, Iran has been under economic sanctions for decades and it has proven that it knows how to live with them.
The Western powers must also be aware of the fact that it would be easier for the Rouhani administration and its negotiators to deal with the extra pressure that would be imposed if the talks fail than to deal with domestic critics who would censure them for signing a bad deal that would envisage only a symbolic nuclear program.
In addition, the Western powers must not forget that Iranian diplomats are only allowed to negotiate within the framework of the red lines set for them. If they believe they can compel Iranian negotiators to make concessions by making excessive demands, they are seriously mistaken.
A senior Iranian negotiator recently told Reuters, “Our Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei) has set a red line for the negotiators and that cannot change and should be respected.”
Another point is that the Iranian people would only regard an agreement as a good deal if it would lead to the prompt lifting of the sanctions that have negatively affected their lives. And Iranian negotiators can sell a deal that in the short term would at least allow Iran to maintain a large enough uranium enrichment capacity to provide fuel for the reactors that are currently in operation. In that case, Iran may be able to accept some short-term constraints on parts of its nuclear program that are not necessary to meet its immediate needs and to consider allowing wider inspections of its nuclear facilities for a specified period of time under a final deal.
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