international analysis and commentary

Iran’s perspective on the new nuclear talks: “extension and hope”

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The 10th round of nuclear talks between the E3+3 (EU members Britain, France, Germany, plus China, Russia, US) and Iran ended on November 24 in Vienna amid a mix of disappointment and cautious optimism. Despite the high expectations that a final resolution to the long-standing nuclear issue could have been finally found, the parties missed a second self-imposed deadline in reaching a comprehensive agreement and, at the 11th hour, they decided instead to extend the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) – the partial agreement reached one year ago in Geneva – for an additional seven months.

The terms of the extension are similar to those outlined back in July, when the JPA was first postponed until November 24. While Iran will maintain its restrictions on further progress in the most sensitive parts of its nuclear activities, the E3+3 will continue to guarantee limited sanction relief to Tehran, granting $700 million per month from Iranian oil revenues frozen in overseas accounts. Albeit both sides have underlined the unappealing nature of the alternatives and of the importance of keeping the diplomatic channel open, the extension is far from ideal. All participants are aware of the increasing pressure that those against a final agreement – especially in Washington and Tehran – will exert in the coming months. However, differently from previous instances in which Iran has been perceived and painted as benefiting the most from maintaining the status quo and “buying time” while negotiating, at the end of this round of talks Tehran emerged as impatient in getting a deal done sooner rather than later.

In his remarks during the press conference concluding the talks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif emphasized that, while the JPA has been extended until July, “We don’t want to use all these seven months.” He highlighted the fact that the parties have committed to resume talks in December, aiming at reaching a political framework ideally in a matter of weeks and by March at the latest. The remaining time until July would then be used to discuss the final draft and the technicalities, if necessary.

Iran’s alleged push for a rapid solution of the nuclear dossier is likely due to the partly changed priorities: a nuclear accord is viewed as a precondition to gain a bigger margin of manoeuvre in other foreign policy issues, as well as in domestic domains. In the words of Zarif, “No other dossier can be dealt with until the nuclear issue is solved.”

Since July, one year after President Hassan Rouhani was elected, the government in Tehran has been consistently subject to forceful criticism by the hardliners, but equally strong have been the incentives to deliver on its electoral promises, which include the improvement of relations with regional international powers, as well as the recovery of the country’s economy. Rouhani portrayed all these matters as strongly depending on the outcome of the nuclear talks. The improvement of the Iranian economy, in particular, would of course greatly benefit from the lifting of the international sanctions imposed against the country. Not surprisingly, immediately after the outcome of the talks in Vienna was announced, the Iranian ultra-conservative newspapers Kayhan published an article entitled the “Village chief [the US] wasn’t trustworthy, sanctions were extended”, to indicate how the JPA extension does not provide Iran with any concessions, but rather with the continuation of the international sanction regime against Tehran. Another hard-line newspaper, Vatan-e-Emrooz, titled his cover page “Nothing”, to describe the practical results. The level of pressure exerted on the negotiating team to solve the nuclear impasse is likely to further increase in the coming months, explaining Zarif’s insistence on the need to reach a political agreement as soon as possible.

To rebuff some of the criticism coming from the hardliners, Zarif stated specifically that his team has the support of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is widely considered the ultimate decision-maker in all national security and foreign policy matters. Zarif added, “What we have agreed upon in Geneva is a framework that guarantees our national interest.” The same official stance – the twin goals of preserving Iran’s national interest while recognizing that additional time is required to achieve positive results – is now adopted with regard to the main sticking points in talks with the E3+3 – the number of centrifuges and the removal of sanctions. Hence, Rouhani, in a televised address to the nation right after the conclusion of the talks, stated that as a result of engagement with the international community “no one in the world has any doubt that Iran must have nuclear technology, including enrichment on its soil, and no one has any doubt that sanctions must be lifted.” He added that he could promise “the Iranian people the centrifuges will continue to turn, but their lives also have to improve.”

The Rouhani administration is very likely to stay the current course, attempting to maintain the positive momentum and international climate with regard to the future outcome of the nuclear negotiations: its original motto “Prudence and Hope” has been changed into the newly coined phrase “Extension and Hope”, now found on most media outlets. It remains to be seen whether this new motto will suffice to contain domestic attacks towards the government’s efforts directed at reaching a nuclear agreement when talks will resume in December.