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Commentary | 28 November 2014

Instead of a deal, a risky delay

Image of Tarja Cronberg

Tarja Cronberg |Former Member of the European Parliament, Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI

Iran JCPOA Middle East Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Security United States Global Security

A deal on Iran’s nuclear program was there for the taking. Political will was strong on both sides. Over 90% of the problems, including the heavy water reactor at Arak and the future of the Fordow facility, had been solved. Still, there was no deal, only a new deadline. The few remaining issues proved too tough to crack. The U.S. team could not go home without a commitment to reduce the number of Iranian centrifuges, even if the enriched uranium would be sent to Russia. The Israelis would also protest vigorously. On their side, the Iranians could not commit to dismantle half of their centrifuges, as this would mean defeat and loss of face back home.

The Americans played for time. Another seven months without sanctions relief will do further damage to the Iranian economy, maybe even bringing it to its knees. The Iranian nuclear program will remain frozen as agreed in the interim Geneva agreement of November 2013. No new centrifuges will be installed and uranium will only be enriched to less than 5 %. The Israelis and the Saudis can’t complain. Astonishingly, the Iranians accepted the extension. The Supreme Leader even saw the result of Vienna talks as an advantage and a sign that Iran had won. His message was that the proud Iranian nation cannot, and will not, be defeated.

As the Supreme Leader both supported the negotiations and accepted the extension, there are few critical voices right now inside Iran. The parliament hard-liners do not want to see President Rouhani to succeed, but neither the Speaker of the Parliament, nor the Chief of the Armer forces or Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, have criticized the foreign minister for the lack of success or suggested abandoning the negotiations. The focus is on sanctions relief and Iran’s right to nuclear technology.

In Washington, the situation is much more explosive. The new Republican-dominated Congress will start work in January. New sanctions will be on the agenda, even if they go against the interim agreement. The Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force has asked for restraint in an appeal signed by several U.S. ambassadors and generals. President Obama has said he will veto such a bill if passed, but the Republicans have threatened to push back with countermeasures. Due to this added uncertainty, the Iranian Foreign Minister is pushing for a deal as soon as possible, preferably as soon as December.

If there is no final deal by the July 1 deadline, the hard-liners both in the U.S. and in Iran will be the winners. Both presidents will be weakened politically. Ordinary Iranians will also be the losers, as sanctions lead to inflation, unemployment and even shortages of medical supplies. Western companies looking forward to an unexploited market with over 70 million consumers will have waited in vain. The regional security situation will erode further with the threat of a military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities reappearing. In terms of the EU’s place on the world stage, it will have lost in its most ambitious and high-level effort to act as a global player.

Hopefully, reason and restraint will prevail and the U.S. Congress will not start yet another war in the Middle East. Possibly a solution can be found where focus on the number and type of centrifuges as is replaced by other means of controlling the peaceful non-military use of technology. Still, on the Iranian side they will have to swallow some of their pride, as a number of centrifuges will have to be dismantled to ensure regional security. And all sides should remember why these negotiations are so important in the first place. After all, a Middle East without nuclear weapons is not such a bad idea.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.