What if the Iranian nuclear talks fail?

The P5+1 and Iran have much to lose if the final nuclear talks fail

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

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In the intense final few days of nuclear talks, the destiny of a historic nuclear deal and the outcome of the concentrated yearlong international negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program will be determined. The deadline for nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) is approaching the deadline of 24 November.

Although Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, stated that Tehran will resist the “excessive demands” over its nuclear program, and although the U.S. and other Western allies have argued that Tehran has not been fully cooperative with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and that there are significant gaps, there is still a high chance and possibility for a final nuclear deal.

Some crucial hurdles can still be found in the phases through which sanctions will be lifted, as well as limitation on uranium enrichment, reducing the stockpile of already-enriched uranium, and the number of centrifuges that the Islamic Republic can retain. The Islamic Republic currently holds approximately 19,000 centrifuges.

The P5+1 and Iran have much to lose if the final nuclear talks fail

Majid Rafizadeh

In retrospect, the cynicism and pessimism was high in the last few days before the interim nuclear deal was reached. The deal seemed far off and out of reach, but two key players (Washington and Tehran) managed to close the gaps at the eleventh hour and reach an accord.

The P5+1 and Iran have much to lose if the final nuclear talks fail. The failure of these nuclear talks will bring up crucial geopolitical problems to the surface in which neither the U.S. nor Iran would like to encounter. In addition, the failure of the nuclear talks will keep Iran’s oil industry and its untapped market closed to the West.

As a result, both parties will desperately examine various approaches to strike the nuclear deal due to the notion that Iran and the U.S. are badly in need of striking a final and comprehensive nuclear deal.

Pointing fingers in the blame game: The U.S. has much more to lose

On the other hand, the U.S. in particular, will have much more to lose in comparison to other players in the game. Iran is in a stronger position than the U.S., and Iranian leaders are cognizant of the notion that the Obama administration needs of a final nuclear deal more than Tehran does. Domestically speaking, if no deal is reached, the Republicans will have strong argument to criticize the Obama administration for investing so much political capital on these negotiations, being deceived by Iranian leaders, releasing billions of dollars to the Iranian government, and for wasting time. In Iran, Hassan Rowhani’s nuclear team might be partially criticized, but they will mostly be praised for standing their ground and defending the Islamic Republic’s right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.

The hardliners and principalists in Iran will definitely gain more power over the moderates, particularly for the next Iranian presidential elections. In addition, if President Hassan Rowhani does not stabilize the economy, reduce inflation, and respond to the demands of those who elected him, he might be the first president in the Islamic Republic to serve one term. Though, Russia and China will provide Rowhani’s administration with economic routes to avert the affects of the sanctions.

Secondly, if a final nuclear is not reached, the Obama administration will likely face the dilemma of pursuing various foreign policies that it has been reluctant to carry out, such as ratcheting up political and economic sanctions on Iran and further isolating Tehran. This might lead to a wider conflict in the Middle East particularly at the times in which Washington appears to need Tehran for fighting ISIS.

Without a doubt, if no final nuclear deal is reached, both sides (the United States and the Islamic Republic) will attempt to chart out ways to create their own narratives outlining the reasons behind the nuclear deal failure. In other words, a rhetorical war to shape the world view will begin. Iranian leaders will likely argue that the U.S. did not want a final nuclear deal from the outset. In addition, Tehran will criticize U.S. Republicans, the Congress and the Israeli lobby’s influence on Washington. American politicians will also argue that the Islamic Republic did not attempt to meet IAEA’s standards and address the gaps.

Continuation of the de facto interim nuclear deal

Will Iran resume enrichment immediately and the U.S. ratchet up sanctions? Although some scholars and policy analysts make the argument that Iran will immediately resume its nuclear activities at full speed to obtain a nuclear bomb, and that the U.S. will ratchet up sanctions after talks fail, this development will more likely not be the case.

First of all, the post-failure reactions of both sides depends on what agreements or disagreements have been reached at final days of the nuclear talks. There might be some bilateral or multilateral talks extended informally, depending on the nuances of the nuclear talks.

Secondly, Iran, on the one side, and the U.S., France and the United Kingdom, on the other side will be watching each other closely to see who is the first player to completely breach the interim nuclear deal and fully reverse the course. In that case, both sides would avoid being called the first instigator or aggressor. In addition, if they wait for the other party to breach the agreement altogether, they can legitimize their reactionary actions by arguing that the other side was the instigator. This might lead to a stalemate in which the interim nuclear deal will continue to informally be the de facto agreement for a while.

Ironically, one of the few winners of the failure of nuclear talks will be Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Shrewdly and masterfully, Khamenei placed himself in a position to not lose his legitimacy and credibility whether the nuclear talks succeed or are scuttled. On the one hand, Khamenei has been arguing that he does not trust the United States and these nuclear negotiations, while willing to give his blessing and a chance to the President Rowhani, Foreign Minister Zarif and their technocrat team to pursue their objectives. As a result, if nuclear talks fail, the supreme leader will argue that he told them so from the beginning, and if the nuclear talks success, he gets credit for being flexible and giving the president a chance. Either way, he will not be blamed.

Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. 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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