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Realpolitik at play as Iran nuclear talks are extended

Observers of the negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme would be forgiven for feeling that history was repeating itself this week. Yet another deadline to reach an agreement to limit Tehran's nuclear capacity was missed on 24 November. In the end, negotiators agreed to keep talking, giving themselves a further four months to bash out an outline for a political deal, and three months after that to finalise a comprehensive agreement.

It was on the same date in 2013 that, as talks appeared on the brink of collapse, the six world powers present agreed an interim deal that saw Iran curb sensitive nuclear activities in return for relief from the sanctions that have crippled its economy. The 2014 extension of the deal retains the same status for Iran's nuclear programme; the country can only enrich uranium up to 5 per cent, instead of the 20 per cent level it had reached previously, which was closer to the level required for creating atomic weapons. This was agreed in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.

According to sources close to the negotiations, the major stumbling block for the Iranians was the speed with which sanctions imposed by the UN and western powers could be removed. This has been impacted by internal politics in the US; the Democrats lost control of the Senate in this month's mid-term election, meaning that President Barack Obama's administration cannot guarantee a full lifting of sanctions. Hard-line Republicans are keen to introduce a sanctions bill that would make the president look powerless by undermining his ability to negotiate. Even before the loss of the Senate, though, there was nervousness in the US that a complete lifting of sanctions could give Iran the opportunity to cheat on its commitments. For the Americans, a barrier to reaching a deal was how best to verify that Iran's nuclear programme is only to generate nuclear power, as the Iranians have maintained, rather than to make bombs. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that this cannot be based only on trust, a view that is shared by many.

Of course, this strikes at the heart of the issue: despite the much-publicised rapprochement between America and Iran that has taken place since Hassan Rouhani was elected as president in Tehran, decades of mutual mistrust and antipathy do not dissipate over the course of a few months. Agreeing a final deal requires a leap of faith from both sides, and it does not appear to be forthcoming.

Despite these problems, neither party wanted to let the talks end in failure. Both stressed that progress has been made. There are numerous reasons for this; from the Iranian side a significant motivation is the crippling impact of sanctions. In conjunction with falling oil prices, they are having a devastating effect across the country. Rouhani, elected on a reformist platform, will be undermined seriously if he cannot improve the economic situation for Iran's people. The negotiation process is already criticised heavily by many MPs, despite the fact that it ostensibly has the support of the Iranian parliament. This mirrors the opposition that Kerry and Obama face in the US from politicians who do not want to see any concessions made to Iran.

Another factor is the risk of escalation while much of the region is already mired in violent conflict. Israel has made no secret of its suspicion of the talks, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he would act unilaterally against Iran if it looks like it is getting a bomb. "No deal is better than a bad deal," said Netanyahu after it was reported that the deadline had been extended. "The deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible… this result is better, a lot better."

Nobody wants to see Israel attacking Iran, not least the US, which has been opening lines of communication with the government in Tehran over the threat from ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq. It was reported recently that Obama had sent a letter to Rouhani, pointing out that the two nations shared a common enemy in ISIS. US officials have insisted that cooperation works through the Iraqi government and that the main aim is to avoid duplicating military operations rather than working together on them. This shift in relations is not without precedent; Washington and Tehran also cooperated after the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, this kind of realpolitik happens all the time, and does not mean that America and Iran will transform into close allies. It does, however, add another element to the already complex web of contesting interests and pressures. It is clear that all parties have a major interest in reaching a deal; whether that means it will happen by the new deadline of July is far less certain.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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