A ‘good start’ in the final phase of nuclear talks?

The final phase of nuclear talks will be nuanced, complex, and likely lengthy

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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The first round of high-level negotiations since the Nov. 24 interim deal addressing the over-a-decade-long nuclear dispute between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and Iran came into action this week. Tehran and six world powers appear to have made a “good start” and agreed on a framework and timetable in order toreach a final nuclear agreement.The agreement is encountering its final critical points, as the interim nuclear deal will expire in July 20.

The actual objective here is to further build on the interim nuclear deal, under which Tehran is receiving sanctions relief in exchange for halting some of its sensitive nuclear developments. Although Iran is in breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions for enriching uranium, the final deal will allow Tehran to continue enrichment at a specific level.

The stakes are high in this final-phase and the issues in the way of reaching a final nuclear deal are complex. The major issue for Western countries is to chart out a path and make sure that Iran will lower its nuclear activities to a level ensuring that they will not be capable of producing a nuclear bomb anytime soon.

The critical questions

To be more specific, the heart of the talks in this final phase include the following: the prospects of Iran’s planned Arak heavy water reactor, the Fordow underground nuclear enrichment site built deep in a mountain, caps on Iran’s expanding ballistic missile capabilities and discussions to allow visits to the Parchin military base— long suspected of being a nuclear-trigger test site.

Also, the six powers expect for Iranian leaders to agree torestrict the enrichment of uranium to a low fissile concentration (approximately 3.5 or 5 percent), putting limitation on nuclear R&D, agreeing to permit a higher level of monitoring by U.N. inspectors, and scaling down or stopping a large number of the existing centrifuges used for enrichment.

The Iranian leaders’ objectives are to be allowed to continue nuclear research andretain the rights to enrich uranium, easing Iran’s international isolation and international sanctions to allow Tehran to regain its economy, its currency’s (Rial) value, increase exports and oil sales, to ultimately lure back investment.

The optimistic trend

We can analyze the talks from either a cautious approach based onprevious nuclear negotiations with Iran or from a promising and optimistic prism.

From the auspicious view, the final nuclear deal looks to be reachable by some politicians, including President Obama. The first reason is that the West and the United States are hesitant to take any other path other than the current one. The tendency of the Obama administration to avoid confrontation with Tehran (like considering military action or tougher sanctions in case the nuclear talks fail), has contributed to pushing for a deal, releasing assets to Iran, easing sanctions in some industries, and reaching the interim nuclear deal. As a result, the West’s apprehension of another possible war in the Middle East has made them slog toward sealing the agreement.

Both sides, particularly Iran, have to address the hardliners at home

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Secondly, the West (particularly France and the Netherlands) is looking to tap into Iran’s $500 billion economy. This open market could be another crucial factor in pushing for a final nuclear deal. This can open up vast business opportunities for Western companies.

Another argument is that Iranian leaders have come to the conclusion that the economic sanctions could not only further weaken Tehran’s economy but it can endanger the clerics’ hold on power. Iranian leaders are attempting to increase oil sales to strengthen their economy, to secure regional hegemonic ambitions.

Dampening optimism and idealism

If the stances of both sides and the nuances of their domestic politics are examined closely, the complexity of the final phase of nuclear talks can be highlighted.

Both sides, particularly Iran, have to address the hardliners at home. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has largely benefited from Tehran’s economic isolation. IRGC generals and officials do not desire to observe the success of the final nuclear deal for three reasons.

First of all, the final nuclear deal would mean that Iran would come out of geopolitical and economic isolation. The privatization and opening of the market to the other companies would be a risk for the IRGC.

Secondly, Iran’s most powerful deterrence in case of external intervention and domestic rebellion is nuclear weaponry. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on major matters of state in the Islamic Republic, previously blamed Qaddafi for giving up his nuclear program and pointed out that Qaddafi’s decision was the paramount factor in his overthrow by American and NATO forces. Iranian leaders view North Korea as a real exampleof how possessing nuclear weapons can be used as deterrent to prevent external forces from intervening.

Third, although United States view Iran’s ballistic missile program is a section of Tehran’s nuclear threat, Iranian leaders and IRGC generals have pointed out that Iran’s missile program is off the table. As Abbas Araqchi, Iranian deputy foreign minister, told Iranian state television: “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defense issues are neither negotiable nor subject to compromise. They are definitely among our red lines in any talks.” The U.S. and Western allies were surprised that IRGC test-fired two domestically made ballistic missiles last week and President Hassan Rowhani praised the missile tests. The missiles are estimated to have ranges of approximately 1,500 kilometers which give Iran the military capability to strike U.S. military bases in the region and Israel.

In addition, Khamenei has also declared his cynicism about a final nuclear deal, stating on Monday that talks between Tehran and the six world powers “will not lead anywhere.”

The final phase of nuclear talks will be nuanced, complex, and likely lengthy. It will only leave the West with the option to extend the interim deal, if a final deal is not reached.

However, when it comes to a political, economic and military cost-benefit analysis, it appears that the priority for the Islamic Republic is to have powerful nuclear deterrence. This could not only ensure the survival of the current political establishment, but can also significantly change the power relations in the region in favor of the Islamic Republic.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC, Harvard scholar, and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu.

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