A new round of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme could begin on 10 December. Started in November 2013, the annual marathon has still not reached the finish line. Both sides are hoping to have worked out the political framework for a future agreement by the end of March, and to have completed the signing of documents by July 2015. The essence of the as yet insurmountable differences is not exactly known, however. Most media reports suggest that the reason for the breakdown of talks is disagreements regarding the outline for the lifting of sanctions, the number of permitted centrifuges, and the fate of a reactor in Arak. However, the opinion that the White House is not ready or not willing to make strategic decisions on such a scale is more well-grounded. This became clear when the Americans tried to reach an agreement at the final stage, meeting with Iranian representatives on a one on one basis. In the end, it was unsuccessful.
It is difficult to agree with the conclusion that Iran was defeated at the talks on the grounds that the West is not lifting sanctions against Iran. The sanctions are clearly hitting Tehran hard, but, firstly, Iran is used to them and, secondly, the Iranians’ desire for success in the negotiations is not just based on economic interests. It is a matter of Iran’s return to the world stage as an equal member of the international community. In this sense, the past year of talks has given the Islamic Republic a great deal. Speaking on national television, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, talked about “the triumph of the great Iranian nation” at talks in Vienna.
The situation is not being dramatised in Iran, there is no panic because the deadline of the talks has been extended, and Iran’s leaders are not giving up on the ultimate goal – to reach a reasonable compromise and close its nuclear dossier. Neither has there been a schism in the Iranian elite as the West expected. Iran understands that the West has used sanctions hundreds of times, and almost always with the aim of removing a regime. However, the Iranian state has become stronger over the last year. There has been an imperceptible rise in social unrest and a certain amount of frustration among business circles and industrialists, but the business community is prepared to wait for the lifting of sanctions. Attempts to undermine the internal political balance in Iran have failed.
Iranians consider the US administration and Obama personally to be the losing side. The American president has been unable to overcome both opposition in Congress and the resistance of Washington’s main allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, to an agreement with Iran. Iran is therefore concerned that after the additional seven months allocated for the completion of talks, the US will be unable to place its signature on the final document. This is being discussed in Tehran at the very highest level, where they realise there can be no easy ways out of America’s 35-year siege. For the first time in many years, Iran has established direct contact with the US leadership. Tehran is still willing to normalise relations with Washington even after the failure in Vienna.
And following America’s refusal to sign an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to support the actions of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration at the talks, doing everything possible “to convince the world of Iran’s inalienable right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy”. Khamenei also believes that the year of talks has shown that there are other ways to close Iran’s nuclear dossier besides diplomacy. Moreover, the international community, which has been following the progress of the talks, now has the opportunity to fully realise the biased position of Israel, which is demonstrating a complete disregard for the ‘Big Six’ group of international mediators. Finally, following the lead of Riyadh, which is threatening the world with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, the US is striking a blow at the non-proliferation regime.
The success of the talks was also not helped by the fact that the US removed not only Russia and China from the negotiation process, but also its European allies. Tehran believes that the patience of America’s allies, which have been forced by Washington to join its unilateral sanctions against Iran, is wearing thin, and Europe’s continued support of America’s unilateral actions is open to question.
Prior to the introduction of the latest sanctions imposed by the US and the EU in January 2012, trade between the US and Iran amounted to just $238.5 million (US exports – $229.5 million, imports – $9 million). Over the course of just nine months in 2011, meanwhile, Iran’s total trade turnover with EU member countries exceeded €20 billion. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s main European trading partners were Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Spain. America’s Asian allies have also suffered significant losses. Japan’s trade with Iran, for example, was almost on a par with the whole of Europe ($16 billion), and the Republic of Korea has lost almost $10 billion as a result of the sanctions. For all these countries, America’s losses from sanctions against Iran are of small consolation, although the US is also losing out. According to an article published by CNN entitled “Sanctions on Iran ‘cost West billions’”, between 1995 and 2012, the US sacrificed nearly $175 billion in potential export revenue with Iran.
America’s losses also have a flip side. As a result of the sanctions, Iran has ceased to be an oil economy and has become the most advanced technological, scientific and military state in the region. Over the years, the country has become one of the twenty largest economies in the world despite sanctions. Yet on the eve of the latest round of talks, President Obama extended the national emergency regarding relations between Washington and Tehran for yet another year. In his address to leaders of the Senate and the US Congress House of Representatives, Obama noted that relations with Iran “have not yet returned to normal”, therefore the state of emergency must continue. Obama also decided to extend the embargo on Iranian oil. At this point, one can mention the rivalry between Iran and America in the hydrocarbon market. According to US experts, Iran’s return to the oil market is making the development of shale deposits in the US a losing proposition.
Obama’s latest decisions with regard to Iran also raise the question of whether his administration will, in principle, be able to enter into a final agreement with Tehran on its nuclear programme. Iran has consistently insisted on its right to a peaceful atom, which has been recognised by everyone involved in the talks except the US Congress. A majority in both houses of Congress are opposed to any compromise with Tehran. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is convinced that without the support of Congress, President Obama will be unable to come to an agreement with Iran. It is more about a strategic struggle with the Iranian regime than it is about Iran’s nuclear programme. McCarthy is calling for the White House to implement “an effective strategy to combat Iran’s malign influence throughout the region”. He also listed the primary areas of this war: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. According to McCarthy, Iran is threatening the interests and security of the United States and its key allies and partners in the region. It is not expected that Obama will close Iran’s nuclear dossier, and he is being urged to cooperate with Congress on how to stand against Iran in the future. Which means that America is not ready for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.