Negotiations with Iran between non-success and non-failure

Despite the importance of the Nov. 24 deadline in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries, most likely the negotiations will neither collapse nor culminate with the desired agreement by that date. Failing to reach an agreement between Iran and the six powers has consequences, but success also carries many implications, and the same goes for an outcome that is between failure and success. These implications and consequences are not related strictly to the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iranian nuclear program or the Iranian economy and its future. With all these extremely important issues, others are relevant and affected including the future of ISIS, the fate of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, and the U.S. ties with the Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia. Israel believes that the Iranian nuclear issue is existential for it and will not accept any agreement regardless of whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons capabilities. Since the relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is tense, Israel may once again make threats about a military strike against the Iranian nuclear program to prevent Iran from developing a military program. So what could happen by Nov. 24? What will happen if the nuclear negotiations with Iran fail?

Experts following the extremely delicate and complex nuclear negotiations believe it more likely that the negotiators will fail to reach a permanent agreement, which they have sought ever since they agreed to hold intensive talks nearly a year ago. These experts think it is likely that the deadline will be extended for another four months – bearing in mind that this would be the second extension. They expect some kind of agreement will be declared, perhaps a framework agreement rather than the desired agreement, on Nov. 24. The experts acknowledge that it will not be possible to agree an extension after extension, because Iran did not stop its nuclear program during the negotiations. Hence, some sides fear negotiations could become a de facto cover for Iranian nuclear development.

If, surprisingly, an agreement was reached in the coming 10 days, and the negotiations culminate with a permanent agreement, Catherine Ashton will be one of the happiest people. The EU foreign policy chief has set her mind on doing her best to secure this achievement, to serve as her historical legacy. Catherine Ashton and Barack Obama, more than anything else, want to turn a new leaf with Iran. Not only do they want a détente with the mullah regime in Tehran but they want to achieve a quantum leap in Western-Iranian relations as well.

Catherine Ashton is desperate to convince Iranian negotiators that reaching a deal during her tenure is the best opportunity for Iran. She has a point. This woman is dying to write down her name in history and has a special relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, with whom she has become so close that they speak in a very friendly manner. Ashton will leave her post at the end of the year and will most probably leave with a personal disappointment.

Catherine Ashton is desperate to convince Iranian negotiators that reaching a deal during her tenure is the best opportunity for Iran.

Raghida Dergham


The gap between the Iranian leadership at the level of the supreme leader and the U.S. leadership is still very wide. Tehran wants to retain the tools that will enable it to become a nuclear state, and while it may agree to freeze its nuclear abilities, it does not seem ready to give up these tools. These tools are not limited to the contentious level of uranium enrichment but include the missiles that Tehran insists on excluding from the nuclear negotiations, while the United States insists on having them included.

Historical opportunity

President Obama, in the letter revealed this week addressed to the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, was keen on highlighting the importance of the historical opportunity on Nov. 24, 2014. Implicitly, Obama was referring to the fact that this is the last date a deal could happen before the Republicans formally begin their majoritarian control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, which could shrink the room available to make a deal. But President Barack Obama cannot give Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei what he wants and will not be able to get an agreement with Iran approved when it puts Tehran a screws-turn away from a nuclear bomb. Neither the American people will allow it, nor will the Republican-dominated Congress.

Obama cannot give Khamenei what he wants and will not be able to get an deal with Iran approved when it puts Tehran a screws-turn away from a nuclear bomb. Neither the American people will allow it, nor will the Republican-dominated Congress.

Raghida Dergham


What will happen in the event a nuclear deal is not reached? Will it mean that the United States will carry out strikes against nuclear positions in Iran to prevent Tehran from building a bomb? Will failure mean a regional war, in the event Israel decides to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons with or without U.S. approval, partnership, or involvement?

No one excludes the military option. The United States has not taken it off the table, though, practically speaking, the United States would like to dismiss that option because it does not want to become implicated in a war with Iran. The United States cannot accept for Iran to become a nuclear power first of all because Israel would see that as an existential threat and secondly because a nuclear Iran would spur a nuclear arms race in the region. It is clear that in the event Iran is accepted as a nuclear state, Gulf countries will activate programs for nuclear weapons – with the help of Pakistan and others.

This does not mean at all that in the event of non-agreement, the drums of wars will be beaten immediately. The United States uses the tool of economic sanctions to keep Iran in check and knows that Tehran is negotiating over its nuclear program to save the mullah regime internally because the economic situation is extremely bad. Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional projects are extremely costly and Iran will not be able to press ahead with them if the economic embargo by way of existing sanctions and possibly more future sanctions remains, not to mention the slump in oil prices, which is engineering to hurt Iran and Russia together.

One of the most prominent sanctions that Iran wants to rid itself of is the D’Amato Act, which requires a decision from Congress to be reversed.

Raghida Dergham


The Republican Congress, meanwhile, will make it very difficult for Barack Obama to lift the sanctions in a non-gradual manner on Iran, which is something that Tehran wants urgently because it is in need of money. Congress will insist on the gradual lifting of sanctions in the event a deal is reached and on more sanctions in the event negotiations fail to reach an agreement. Here lies Congress’s power in the Iranian issue. One of the most prominent sanctions that Iran wants to rid itself of is the D’Amato Act, which requires a decision from Congress to be reversed.

The Republicans in Congress want the Obama administration not to continue to turn a blind eye to Iran’s roles in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. They see Iran’s need to get the sanctions lifted through nuclear negotiations as a valuable opportunity to put the issue of Iran’s regional expansion on the table.

On Syria, where President Obama wants simply to "isolate" ISIS compared with his intention to defeat it in Iraq, it is not clear what the Republican Congress’s position will be toward what is being planned provisionally for Syria.

Raghida Dergham


As concerns Lebanon, the Republican Congress’ eyes will be on Hezbollah and its involvement in the war in Syria alongside the regime and on behalf of Iran. Here, financial instruments will be used for punishment and accountability. The U.S. Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security will also play important roles.

On Syria, where President Obama wants simply to "isolate" ISIS compared with his intention to defeat it in Iraq, it is not clear what the Republican Congress’s position will be toward what is being planned provisionally for Syria. There is a movement trying to revive diplomacy to reach political solutions on the basis that there can allegedly be no escape from a de facto alliance with the Syrian army, and from accepting the survival of Bashar al-Assad in power, to isolate, defeat, and repel ISIS and its ilk.

The European Union wants political dialogue to be a means of preventing Assad from saying that the military solution is the only option in the absence of a political process. Therefore, the Europeans adopt a policy of no vacuum, i.e. distraction by way of an empty diplomatic engagement. But they had fallen victim to the ambush of the priority of counterterrorism that the regime in Damascus set up for them guided by a policy clearly made in Tehran.

Tehran and Moscow made counterterrorism a way to convince Washington too that this was the priority in Syria and that there was no choice but to partner up with Assad to prevent the growth and spread of terrorism. The expansion of U.S. air strikes into Syria against ISIS certainly serves Assad, Russia and Iran, though it does not come without risk for them and ulterior motives that both Moscow and Tehran fear. For this reason, they are both studying their options and reconsidering. Moscow is talking about hosting a conference for the Syrian opposition with a view to bring the internal opposition to the fore and eliminate the Syrian National Coalition abroad and undermine the Free Syrian Army inside Syria, with Tehran’s blessing.

Egypt is becoming relevant again in the context of the talk about a regional conference for Syria that would include the government and the opposition, but which of course would exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, bearing in mind that Egypt bars the latter from entering its territory. Egypt wants to impose an Arab party on any regional bid so that Turkey and Iran do not end up monopolizing the Syrian issue. Egypt is keen on preserving strong ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and therefore will try to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad only with extreme caution.

The representative of the secretary general of the United Nations, Staffan de Mistura, who succeeded Lakhdar Brahimi, is visiting the region including Damascus carrying an initiative for “patching and tinkering” and making gaffe after gaffe. He began his public positions by styling himself as the spokesman for the international coalition, focusing on the fight against ISIS as the top priority but he failed to mention the barrel bombs and the shelling by the Syrian army against Syrian villages.

Reliable sources quoted people close to the Syrian president as saying that “he gave us more than we expected,” in reference to Staffan de Mistura agreeing to talk about terrorism only when he met for the first time with Assad, thus turning the page on Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts. Indeed, Brahimi has suggested to Assad that the transitional political process approved in the Geneva Communiqué practically meant for him to hand over power to a transitional body with full powers. Staffan de Mistura, by comparison, spoke to Assad only about terrorism.

The sources added that Staffan de Mistura would agree with President Assad over everything he said, as though he was implementing what he was instructed to do, namely, to avoid talking about the future of the Syrian president.

In addition to avoiding all talk about barrel bombs, Staffan de Mistura was keen on involving Iran in a systematic way in any solution in Syria from the outset. He does not have a plan or an initiative, and is content with the idea of “freezing” the conflict in Aleppo that he proposed to the Syrian government. Of course, this has encouraged the latter because it realizes that the moderate Syrian opposition would not approve without conditions such as an end to barrel bombs and air strikes. Thus, Staffan de Mistura was used as a way to blame the Syrian opposition for rejecting a solution, in addition to sanctioning the priority of counterterrorism in Syria.

This has been the regime’s condition from the beginning, which Brahimi had tried to address in parallel with the political solution, a bid that was rejected. The regime in Damascus, supported by Tehran and Moscow, will not agree to step aside, provisionally, transitionally, or in any way. Staffan de Mistura may be avoiding talking about this for the time being, at least until the negotiations with Iran run their course.

The de facto reality is that thousands of rounds of nuclear negotiations have been linked to regional developments such as the fight against ISIS and eliminating it as part of an alliance that includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, forcing the United States to take it into account when talking to Iran. ISIS’s entry into the long and arduous process in Syria or the slightly hopeful situation in Iraq is not to be seen in isolation from the Iranian roles in the two countries. For this reason, nuclear negotiations are no longer just about nuclear and economic issues, regardless of whether a grand bargain will be reached or collapse will be the outcome.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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