Over a year has passed since the November 2013 interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear program (also titled the Joint Plan of Action) was signed by Iran and the P5+1 states (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, and Germany). However, despite the past optimistic predictions, the parties have not reached a comprehensive agreement. Diplomats, as they are supposed to, are trying to paint a more positive picture, reporting on “progress” in the negotiations and a decision to continue the dialogue in order to reach the agreement in the spring or summer of 2015. But the fact remains: hopes were dashed; the negotiations failed, and no one explains why they might succeed in the future.

Alexey Arbatov
Alexey Arbatov is the head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
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Meanwhile, a lot depends on the result of these negotiations. First of all, their success would help to avoid the threat of a new armed conflict in the Persian Gulf precipitated by Israeli strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations, which would exacerbate the massive violence in Syria and Iraq. Besides, the preservation of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake, since it is unlikely to withstand a second setback in reaching an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program—after the blow it suffered as a result of the North Korean nuclear affair. Next Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference scheduled to take place in May 2015 could end in a complete debacle. Finally, it is quite predictable that the new confrontation in the Gulf would put Russia and the United States on different sides of the conflict, thus drastically exacerbating their current split over Ukraine.

On the surface, the current fiasco can be explained by the lack of progress on a number of key technical issues, primarily on the allowed scale of Iranian uranium enrichment potential. At this point, Iran has a total of 19,000 centrifuges installed, 10,000 of which are operational. Allegedly the United States is prepared to agree to 1,500, and a compromise figure of 4,500 has also been discussed. For its part, Iran wants to retain all of its current centrifuges and have a right to install up to 50,000 of them in the future—purportedly for fueling the Bushehr and other projected atomic reactors.

In addition, the questions of the allowed volumes of low-enriched uranium stockpiles, the construction of the Arak reactor, and the closing of the Fordow underground enrichment facility remain unresolved. Iran’s past nuclear activity, its missile program, and a host of other issues are also still on the table. The parties disagree on the procedure for lifting the sanctions as well; Tehran supports a one-step process as opposed to the gradual lifting of the sanctions contingent on its compliance with the nuclear agreement.

However, all the complexity and importance of the technical problems notwithstanding, the main reason for the impasse most probably has different origins. After all, these specific disagreements were also present a year ago, but most politicians and experts then agreed on the optimistic prospects for reaching a comprehensive deal. The only thing that has drastically changed since then is the political situation in the world. Apparently, it was this situation that had a decisive impact on the parties’ positions at the negotiating table. Thus, the main reason for the failure is political rather than technical.

First of all, the matter is Iran’s tougher stance. Iran is again presenting ambitious plans for developing its atomic industry, including the development of large uranium enrichment potential. Apparently, this change of course is in part driven by domestic concerns: Ayatollah Khamenei and his supporters seek to prevent a significant strengthening of President Rouhani, whose reputation is staked on reaching the agreement on nuclear issues and improving relations between Iran and the West.

However, the state of global affairs evidently plays a decisive role. The Iranian ruling elite probably believes that the situation is far better for Tehran now than it was a year ago; therefore, it should drastically increase its demands during the negotiations. First, Iran’s negotiation partners are now divided, with the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany finding themselves in tough opposition to Russia (whose position has lukewarm support of China). Let’s remember that initially the P5+1 negotiations with Iran were predicated on the threat of even harsher sanctions in case of its intransigence. Conversely, Iran’s agreement to significant limitations to its nuclear program and the full transparency regime would bring about a lifting of the oil embargo and other sanctions. But the sudden eruption of the Ukrainian conflict soon after the November 2013 interim agreement was signed has changed all that. The P5+1 members—Russia and the United States (with its allies)—started imposing economic sanctions on each other, shut down most of their cooperative projects, entered their sharpest political and military confrontation in the past few decades, and conducted menacing military exercises directed against each other. Instead of being partners in the negotiations with Iran, they have essentially become adversaries.

At this time, the West perceives Russia as a greater threat than Iran and its nuclear program; thus, it ostensibly should be far more interested in the success of the negotiations for a number of reasons. A deal with Tehran would pave the way for Iranian oil and subsequently gas exports. This will lead to a further decline in global energy prices that the Russian economy heavily relies on. Besides, Iran is capable of largely substituting Russia as a source of oil and gas for Europe, which would deprive Moscow of a key instrument for advancing its interests in relations with the European Union and Ukraine. In fact, Iran recently hinted at such a possibility. Finally, the reconciliation between the United States and Iran would reduce Iran’s economic and political dependency on Russia, hence undermining both Russia’s influence in the region and its position vis-à-vis the West as a state capable of influencing Iran.

For its part, Moscow is now also much more interested in strengthening its relations with Iran. Of course, Russia is not sabotaging the negotiations but is believed to be acting far more passively than before, when it actively urged Iran to seek compromises. As an object of harsh economic sanctions and political pressure on the part of the United States and its allies, and faced with the decline in global oil prices and ruble devaluation, Russia hardly believes that it should be helping the West to straighten out the differences with Iran. Away from the negotiating table, Russia is actively developing its relations with Iran: it is planning large exchanges of goods for Iranian oil and promoting Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It also signed a contract to build two new nuclear reactors in Iran and is planning to add six more in the future. (Incidentally, the plans to construct new nuclear power plants now help Iran in substantiating its need for greater uranium enrichment potential).

The Islamic extremists’ offensive in Syria and Iraq has emerged as another political factor. Iran is objectively on the side of  the West in its confrontation with the Sunni extremists. So far the United States does not demonstrate its interest in military cooperation with Tehran, but this might change if the airstrikes against the Islamic State prove futile and its aggression in the region escalates, especially following the NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Understandably, Tehran believes that all of these factors substantially improve its negotiating position. Indeed, it would have seemed odd had Iran not toughened its stance, thus departing from the classic tradition of Oriental bargaining.

Essentially, the last phase of the recent negotiations centered around the United States and Iran, with other actors passively observing. True, Barack Obama cannot make significant concessions in the context of bolstered Republican opposition, which insists on new sanctions against Iran before the conclusion of the negotiations. The American president is also forced to consider Israeli and Saudi opposition to excessively generous steps toward Iran’s demands. But Tehran is willing to wait, believing time to be on its side, especially if the partial lifting of sanctions enshrined in the interim agreement holds.

Thus, the prospects for reaching a comprehensive settlement in the spring or summer of 2015 do not look rosy. The end result may be a deal between the United States and Iran or an ultimate failure, which would make a new Gulf war and all that it would entail practically inevitable.

Of course, a third possibility also exists. In case of a peaceful resolution and de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, at least selective cooperation between the P5+1 members might be restored (especially in light of the 2015 NPT Review Conference), resulting in significant softening of Tehran’s position at the negotiations and their successful completion.

It seems too good to be true at this point, but who knows…? It all depends on the political will of Russia, the United States, and other states and their taking more responsibility for the global security. After all, Ukraine, as important as it is, is not the only crucial issue; a strengthening of the non-proliferation regime and preventing a new Gulf war are also of utmost importance. The success in the negotiations with Iran and elimination of all causes for concern with its nuclear program are vital for accomplishing these goals.

  • Alexey Arbatov