THE BLOG
11/21/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Nuclear Negotiations Between the West and Iran

November 24 this year is an important date on the calendar for diplomats between the P5+1 (the Permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, ie. The U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany) and Iran, because it represents the deadline for the conclusion of the negotiations regarding a comprehensive accord between the west and Iran on the latter's nuclear program. These negotiations have been tortuous, and so far unfruitful. Whether in the few days remaining before the deadline the two sides can achieve success is far from certain. Some diplomats who are privy to the negotiations suggest that the chances of success range from 30-50 percent. Paul Sullivan, professor of Economics at the National Defense University, Washington D.C., has commented "the negotiations will drag on, just in different ways. I expect little of any good to come from this." A retired British diplomat is concerned that any deal that is struck will be portrayed as a sellout by Israel. On the other side of the Arab-Israeli divide, the former Saudi Ambassador and also former head of intelligence for 25 years, Turki al Faisal, has threatened that if Iran develops nuclear weapons Saudi Arabia would feel free to develop uranium enrichment reactors. Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, who heads the Iran Studies Center at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the U.K., fears failure to cut a deal will result in increased radicalization in Iran.

I think it is well known that there are powerful forces on both sides who wish to scupper a deal between the two sides. In the United States, Congress contains influential elements who are deeply suspicious of the Iranian leadership. They claim that Iran will not give up its ability to make nuclear weapons. On the Iranian side, there are similar right-wing elements who act as a constraining factor on Iranian President Rouhani, and his negotiators, suggesting that Iran will cave in and give up its right to develop nuclear technology. These elements use nationalistic slogans and recall Iran's subservience to the western powers in the past century. The extremely difficult task for the P5+1 and the Iranian delegations is to find an acceptable via media between these two antithetical perceptions.

One scenario is that failing to achieve a mutually acceptable solution by November 24 would mean that both sides get into a huff and call off further talks indefinitely. This would mean that the nay-sayers on both sides would have achieved their objectives. However, the latter should not celebrate their triumph, but look ahead to the possible consequences of a complete breakdown. The estrangement between the U.S. and Iran, which is in its fourth decade, will continue. There are large shades of irony in this standoff. Some recent polls suggest that Iranians, whose demographic composition is increasingly represented by its youth, have markedly pro-U.S. feelings, compared to the U.S.'s traditional allies in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Jordan. The sanctions which the United States and the U.N. have imposed on Iran, while causing it significant economic losses, have not deterred its nuclear program. The breakdown will likely strengthen the hand of the Revolutionary Guard and other anti-Western groups in Iran in the internal power struggle in that country. It should not be forgotten that President Rouhani has expended a lot of political capital in the hopes of pulling off a successful negotiation. So has President Obama. The U.S. president has reportedly written four times to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, calling for better relations. It is not known what has been the response of Khamenei, who keeps the cards very close to his chest. He has been making ambivalent statements couched both in anti-U.S. language and also in language supporting the negotiations.

The best possible outcome in my mind would be an agreement between the two sides that if the deadline is reached without a solution, the negotiations should be extended. Reportedly, the Iranians have agreed to ship all or most of their fuel from uranium-enrichment to Russia to be stripped of its nuclear potential. Also, the number of centrifuges, which Iran would be permitted to retain after the accord, should not become a deal breaker if Iran agrees to more intrusive inspections by the IAEA. Therefore, given more time, which could possibly build a degree of trust between the west and Iran, a deal could be possible. Absent such a deal, it appears that Iran would probably be able to absorb the punishment of sanctions and at the same time not feel any significant constraints on its nuclear activities. That would be a solution which would help neither side. We should also remember that the United States and the west are on the same side as Iran regarding the need to defeat the threat posed by ISIS to the Middle East. Iran has the military capability, and equally important, influence over the Iraqi Shia militias, to stand up to ISIS and push it back from the territory it has captured in Iraq. This congruence of interest between the west and Iran would be lost in the inevitable acrimony which would ensue after a failed negotiation.