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Easing the pressure on Iran nuclear talks

Progress in negotiations bodes well for the region

by Gareth Smith
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov

Sergei Ryabkov, deputy Russian foreign minister, spoke in early May of the potential for agreement between Iran and world powers on “elements of a coordinated text and details of a general text” in the latest round of negotiations that concluded last Friday. The fragile confidence in a substantial deal superseding November’s interim Geneva accord, due to expire in July, means politicians and officials are already contemplating its impact on the region.

Abbas Araghchi, deputy Iranian foreign minister and lead negotiator, has been muttering about “dark forces on all sides,” a barely veiled reference to growing criticisms from hardliners in Iran who smell surrender. But Farideh Farhi, of Hawaii University, who closely follows Iran’s domestic debates over talks with the ‘Great Satan’, recently said she thought the leadership had sufficient support, provided US President Barack Obama overcomes congressional opposition to easing sanctions.

Israel’s concerns also remain important because of its undue influence in Washington. However, Keith Weissman, former analyst for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says that while the Israeli leadership had their heels dug in against an agreement, he thought that qualms over use of force “especially in the military, renders an actual attack unlikely,” at least “for now.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran’s compliance to date with the terms of Geneva, particularly in diluting 20 percent enriched uranium, while Tehran is preparing a document explaining past research with alleged military dimensions. True, the recent senior IAEA visit did not include Parchin, a site dogged with allegations of nuclear related military work, but Iran’s new proposal to redesign the Arak heavy water reactor, until now a sticking point because it opens a potential path to a plutonium based bomb, has been well received.

An agreement would limit Iran’s nuclear program to 5 percent enrichment and introduce more intrusive IAEA inspections. Iran is unlikely to close Ferdo, the fortified site near Qom the Israelis want mothballed, but the toughest negotiations are probably over centrifuges used for enriching uranium. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, has spoken of keeping the current 20,000 — under half of which are active — for “four or five years,” whereas the Americans are pressing for 4,000.

It is less clear which sanctions would go in return, and how quickly. Iran wants to recoup funds frozen abroad, and an end to US and EU banking and oil sanctions that have halved crude exports to around 1.1 million barrels per day since 2012.

Presumably a deal would lift some sanctions now and schedule further easing as Iran abides by terms of the agreement. It is important for Tehran, beyond the short term, to end US actions that have curbed its development of gas reserves, which at 33.6 trillion cubic meters are the world’s largest. The stifling of Iran’s gas sector predates the 2012 sanctions and resulted from often informal US pressure on non-US oil majors to abandon joint ventures that would transfer to Iran the technology to develop liquified natural gas infrastructure, which is highly preferable to pipelines.

What would a deal mean for the region? Analysis differs. Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Tehran, argues that the US and Iran would stay “fundamentally opposed to each other on more significant issues, such as Syria.” In contrast, Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said last December that Syria was a “sideshow” in which Saudi Arabia had turned on President Assad to fight back against Iran over its nuclear program and growing influence in Iraq. With a nuclear agreement, the Syrian stalemate might incline regional powers to at least downplay support for competing factions.

On becoming president last year, Hassan Rouhani identified improving relations with Saudi Arabia as a priority. Even if Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states continue to increase arms spending after a nuclear deal, a diplomatic thaw might cool the Iran–Saudi Arabia tension level from being enemies to merely being rivals.

Growing international trade with Iran would surely be a boom for Dubai as many like dealing with Iran through Dubai as a hub with free trade zones and a developed financial sector. Iran also needs overseas capital, long deterred by US sanctions, as it cannot domestically meet investment needs of $60–80 billion annually.

All of this could help Rouhani in his stated aim of fostering a vibrant private sector, which would have a profound effect on Iran’s economy, politics and society. Is it wildly speculative, then, to suggest that the greatest consequence of a nuclear agreement could be a reformed Iran enmeshed economically with the wider world?

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Gareth Smith

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

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