At last a nuclear deal with Iran is in sight. The chance must not be spurned
It’s hard to see why a nuclear deal with Iran will not be agreed this week. Each of the state representatives taking part in the final round of negotiations in Lausanne has powerful reasons for wanting a successful outcome, while the reputations of key individuals would be enhanced by an agreement. Such pragmatic considerations aside, a deal is positively desirable for strategic, security, and moral reasons.
Given a string of past failures stretching back to 2002, when Iran’s covert nuclear programme was first publicly revealed, a continuing impasse after tomorrow night’s deadline may look a safer bet. Diplomats are warning that significant differences remain, particularly over the lifting of UN sanctions and Tehran’s wish to continue nuclear research and development.
But the negotiators – from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran – have been aware of these sticking points for months. It is reasonable to assume they already have compromise formulas up their sleeves, and may yet put them on the table. What is happening now, it appears, is last-minute manoeuvring for advantage. And the bar has been lowered. The aim now is for a “preliminary” deal, not the “comprehensive solution” that was originally sought.
Iran wants a deal because sanctions – despite official denials – are hurting its economy and damaging crucial oil and gas export industries. Iranian businessmen and workers interviewed in Tehran last year were unanimous in their hope that relations will be normalised. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, knows a deal would revive his so far lacklustre presidency and confound his conservative critics.
Even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears temporarily to have set aside his life-long, visceral distrust of the Americans and British. He recently discouraged criticism of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s chief negotiator. If Tehran does balk at the last moment, it will most likely be because Khamenei does not feel the timing and pace of sanctions relief are acceptable. He will certainly be consulted before Zarif signs anything.
John Kerry, a serial under-achiever as US secretary of state, has a lot riding on these talks. A deal would be a rare personal success in a sea of diplomatic failures reaching from Syria and Palestine to Crimea. Likewise, Barack Obama could certainly use a foreign policy breakthrough. His recent Nowruz address, aimed at Iranians, made clear he is not simply looking to resolve the nuclear standoff.
Obama, rightly, sees a chance for an historic rapprochement with Iran after 35 years of estrangement, which could radically change the strategic balance in the Middle East. Already established cooperation in fighting Islamic State terror in Iraq could mark the start of a productive new partnership, as was the case with the shah before the 1979 revolution.
Britain and France view matters in much the same way. But by making a last-gasp fuss about disclosing Iran’s past nuclear projects, President François Hollande tried to assuage the fears of Arab allies (and Israel) by showing that France did its utmost to secure a safe deal. Britain is in the process of restoring diplomatic relations. Lucrative markets and business opportunities beckon in a rehabilitated Iran, where Britain, oddly enough, is still respected, and reviled, as a global power.
Russia, which has provided valuable diplomatic cover to Tehran over the years, also has important commercial links in terms of nuclear power and arms sales. China simply wants cheap, unrestricted Iranian energy and raw materials. But Moscow and Beijing agree with the western powers that preventing a future nuclear arms race between Iran and the Arab regimes is highly desirable.
All that said, bringing Iran in from the cold is a moral imperative too. The US-led ostracism of this proud, talented and historically pro-western nation has lasted far too long. It has been immensely damaging for Iranians, Europeans and the region. It has encouraged political and religious hardliners on all sides, at a time when productive, moderating, cooperative relationships with Muslim countries are badly needed.
A deal could be done this week. It certainly should be.