The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the US — along with Germany (commonly referred to as P5+1), first signed the Geneva interim agreement, officially titled the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), on November 24, 2013. Under the terms of the JPOA, the P5+1 concurred that Iran would implement a short-term freeze of portions of its nuclear programme in exchange for a limited decrease in economic sanctions — including access to frozen accounts in western financial institutions — while negotiations continued towards a long-term accord.
Given rekindled sectarianism that further divided the Gulf region, several western observers advanced the notion that Iran, a country with hegemonic ambitions throughout the Arab world — including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and especially Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — was poised to impose specific conditions to reach a final agreement with the P5: Nuclear powers vs the ‘policeman of the gulf’. Was this even possible?
Notwithstanding intense discussions in Geneva, Vienna and Muscat, tired diplomats have now given themselves seven additional months to overcome the current deadlock that, presumably, would end by June 30, 2015. Although few believed that a felicitous outcome could be hatched that fast, it was eminently clear that the bazaar (market) mentality prevailed, which effectively meant that short of further delay, negotiations necessitated compromises on both sides. Such an outcome was to Iran’s advantage even if few doubted that technical details were immensely complicated and needed to be assessed with great care.
For now, both sides can claim some breathing space, with US Secretary of State John Kerry declaring that real and substantial progress was made, even if “some significant points of disagreement” remained. “These talks are not going to get easier just because we extend them,” said Kerry, and added: “They’re tough. They’ve been tough. And they’re going to stay tough.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the man who faces heavy pressure from hardliners at home and who leveraged his popularity on the outcome of what his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif could secure to lift crippling international economic sanctions, was more optimistic: “It is true that we could not reach an agreement, but we can still say that big steps have been taken,” he told the Iranian State TV. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, seconded by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, commented that “substantial progress” was achieved without, of course, providing details.
Both Britain and France hoped that discussions would re-start in earnest, with Hammond insisting that there ought to “be further meetings in December” with a clear target to reach “an agreement on substance in the next three months or so.” Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, was equally determined: “In the course of the past few days, some new ideas came up. They clearly require a very detailed technical assessment because these are complex concepts,” which focused, according to International Atomic Energy Agency officials, on Iranian compromises over the hitherto inaccessible Arak facility.
Be that as it may, it was critical to note that leading Middle Eastern countries were also affected by what the P5+1 discussions entailed, even if they were not represented in Vienna. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, felt the pressure of potential Iranian hegemonic aspirations and it fell on Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, to clarify: “We bear responsibility not just for us six but for many states in the world ... that have legitimate security concerns about the development of the Iranian nuclear programme.”
While it was unclear whether Steinmeier hinted that a long-standing request made by his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud Al Faisal, would eventually be honoured, to have a Gulf Cooperation Council representative join the discussions, it was indeed on the table. Naturally, Iran opposed such an addition and rejected the very notion that a looming crisis pitted it against neighbouring states. Still, there was no denying that Iran’s future geo-strategic role in the Middle East and Southeast Asia is so critical that its leaders will not hesitate to bargain in earnest to transform it, once again, into ‘the policeman of the Gulf’.
Given the paucity of substantial details that emerged to date, Kerry’s claims that it was imperative not to walk away when a workable agreement was possible to “make the entire world ... safer and more secure”, offered hope. Nevertheless, Kerry warned that Washington would not “sit at the negotiating table forever,” which was also telling.
Iran has masterfully negotiated its nuclear programme for nearly 12 years now and is not about to walk away either as it wished to accomplish several objectives simultaneously: To remove sanctions, proceed with its nuclear programme and impose its will on the region. It is worth noting that save a few statements issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran never provided any guarantees that its long-term goal was not to try and build a weapon. Moreover, it is also worth remembering that the November 2013 extension was only reached after Israel appeared to be ready to launch a military assault on Iran, something that cannot be ruled out in the future. That is why Iran dragged the talks and that is why the June 2015 deadline is nearly impossible to meet.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.