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The Iranian Nuclear Deadlock Continues

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In perhaps the least surprising news of the year, Iran and the P5+1 failed to reach an agreement in Vienna on Monday. The P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment activities; Iran wants sanctions to be lifted.

Neither is likely to happen any time soon. Iran runs around 10,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium. It wants to maintain that level and possibly even increase it. The P5+1 want Iran to reduce the number to 4000. You might think they could compromise somewhere in the region of around 7000 centrifuges, but that outcome is acceptable to neither party. And logic has never really guided Iran’s nuclear programme, which has cost billions of dollars and international political isolation without meeting its declared aim of providing nuclear-generated electricity for the country.

Iran’s nuclear policy has been dictated in part by emotional considerations: it’s hard to underestimate Tehran’s belief that such a great and ancient nation as Iran ought to be a nuclear power. Persisting with the nuclear programme in the face of Western opposition is also a way of standing up to ‘imperialism’. In the words of Clement Therme, who teaches at Sciences Po: ‘The political elite needs to challenge the west and the nuclear file has become a tool with which to do this.’

Then there is the military dimension. There are too many irregularities, too many unanswered questions and too much evasiveness around the various weaponisation studies Iran has carried out for anyone to believe that the prospect of building a nuclear bomb has not seriously featured in Iranian calculations.

But Iran needs the sanctions to be lifted. They drastically reduce its access to international finance and foreign currency. The international banking system is now largely closed to Tehran.

So an uneasy unity prevails between President Hassan Rouhani, the negotiating team led by the foreign minister, Mohamamd Javad Zarif, and the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, on the need to keep the talks going. But on their own terms: handshakes and smiles between Zarif and John Kerry, but no bending to American diktats‬.

How long they can stay defiant is the key question. Iran has a tough few months ahead. Oil prices have dropped rapidly, from $100 a barrel to less than $80 in three months. The P5+1’s ‘sanctions relief’ has amounted only to Iran’s own assets being returned, and very gradually at that. From January, Republicans will control both houses of the US Congress and there is a considerable chance that they will place new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

The chances of a deal now hinge on Iran’s willingness to modify its stance. Regional developments will be critical: in particular, whether Tehran can leverage its influence in Iraq to combat Isis; and whether Saudi Arabia, terrified at the possibility of an Iranian bomb, increases oil production to lower prices even further.

In the meantime Kerry and Zarif will continue to smile. They will not allow the process to die. Détente with Iran is perhaps the only thing that can save President Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Meanwhile, if the talks collapse and Rouhani fails to repair relations with the West he will have broken his key campaign promise to the Iranian electorate. More damagingly, after only two years in power he will have lost his battle with the hardliners who reject closer ties with the West on principle.

So the two sides agreed to extend the talks until 1 March 2015, with technical details to be agreed on by 1 July. ‘We are optimistic and believe we can achieve final agreement in a very short while,’ Iran’s deputy foreign minister said. ‘But telling its exact date is unpredictable.’

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