Lingering hurdles spell deadlock for Iran nuke deal: experts

Intervention by Iran’s supreme leader and Tehran's modified demands could lead to deadlock in the talks with world powers

Paul Crompton

Published: Updated:

Ongoing issues between world powers and Iran on a deal to end a decade-old dispute over Tehran’s suspect nuclear program may result in continued deadlock, experts said.

The ongoing discussions between six world powers and the Islamic Republic over Tehran’s nuclear capabilities have been delayed for four months, after both sides repeatedly stressed “significant gaps” between them during the Vienna-based talks.

The two sides now have until Nov. 20 to secure a deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.

The interim six-month agreement, inked in November of last year, was deemed “historic” by many commentators who believed it marked a thaw in a 30-year hiatus in foreign relations following the Islamic Revolution that saw the toppling of the pro-American shah in 1979.

After the preliminary accord, both the United States and Iran had to convince skeptics at home and construct convincing mechanisms to ensure compliance and to unravel complex global sanctions that some had seen as crippling to Iran’s economy.

But who has more to gain from a successful outcome in the talks?

The weighty issue of sanctions is currently the key problem Iran has with the United States, the country to have imposed the most unilateral sanctions against Tehran, wrote Iran’s former Deputy Foreign Minister for International Affairs Gholamali Khoshroo.

For the six world powers – U.S., France, China, Russia, Britain and Germany – the amount of Uranium enrichment capacity is the crucial issue to be resolved. Elevated uranium enrichment could allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons.

However, in the talks that took place earlier this month, Iran seemed to have moved further away from its opponents on the negotiating table, Amer al-Bayati, an atomic energy analyst and Vienna-based journalist, said.

“The enrichment issue could be an insurmountable stumbling block,” Bayati told Al Arabiya News.

Iran’s growing demands at the negotiations became public on July 7 when its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech that the Islamic Republic needed 190,000 nuclear centrifuges – a figure he said was 19 times greater than world powers would allow under the deal.

The six powers' opening demand was that Iran be limited to operating between 500 and 1,200 first-generation centrifuges.

Later in the month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif disclosed that he had proposed Iran be allowed to keep running its current operating inventory of 9,400 centrifuges with a freeze in expansion during the deal.

“Some Western officials, perhaps eager for signs of progress, claimed that this showed a new flexibility from Tehran,” said Bayati.

With the untimely intervention of Iran’s supreme leader, and if Iran sticks to these modified demands, it will “ensure continued deadlock.”

The decision to delay the talks makes sense for both sides, giving Iran more time to comply with existing rules set in place in November and has slightly delayed the time it would take Iranian scientists to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make a single nuclear device, UK-based magazine The Economist speculated.

Additionally, Iran would have had more to lose had they decided to walk away from the negotiating table – due to the continuation of a slumped economy locked in the firm jaws of a harsh sanctions regime, humiliation to the presidency of Hassan Rowhani, who has positioned himself as a reformer, and Khamenei’s fear of losing legitimacy.

Two studies have suggested Iran’s economy picked up in the first few months of 2014 as a result of the relaxing in sanctions – lending weight to Rowhani’s promise that talks with the West would bring some economic relief to Iranians, Newsweek columnist Benny Avni wrote.

However, a possibly crippling issue Iran faces in its nuclear talks is a “trust deficit,” Robert Einhorn, an arms control expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think-tank wrote, quoting former IAEA Director General and former Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei.

While it is unclear whether or not Iran’s leaders are still interested in developing nuclear weapons, “but if they want the rest of the world to believe their nuclear program is devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes, they must demonstrate it through their actions, not just their words – and that will take time,” Einhorn wrote.

The extension of the nuclear talks to Nov. 20 between Iran and world powers may not be enough. “Even with the new deadline, success is far from assured,” added Einhorn.

And with more time until November for a final deal, anti-Western conservative hardliners in Tehran may get more involved, making a resolution from Iran’s end even more difficult, Iranian news commentator Camelia Entekhabi-Fard noted.

“Stretching the time of the negotiations just allows for more opponents to get involved and makes the talks harder,” said Fard.

Iran’s hardliners are a considerable threat to the perceived moderate stance of President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, Iranian political analyst Mahan Abdedin wrote in online news outlet Middle East Eye.

“By framing their ostensible opposition to a deal by appealing to general anti-American and anti-Western sentiments, the hardliners signal that they are not necessarily opposed to the peaceful conclusion of the nuclear dispute, but by what may ensue afterward, namely normalization of ties with Washington,” according to Abdedin.