For decades, Iran’s controversial nuclear program has gotten on the nerves of the Western capitals. The latest seven-month talks extension between Tehran and the world powers have once again reminded the international community how hard it is to strike a fine deal.
It also alerted the negotiators that more courage to compromise — the only key to unlock the nuclear impasse — is still in shortfall.
Despite the fact that Iran and the major powers, also known as the P5+1 bloc grouping the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, have twice missed the deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, they have indeed made some key breakthroughs and progress towards solving the Iranian nuclear issue.
In September, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama and then-newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke over the phone and agreed to accelerate the nuclear talks. It was the first direct talks between the leaders of the two countries since the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran.
Later in November, Iran and the world powers reached an accord, under which Tehran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment activities in exchange for a moderate relief of the West-imposed sanctions.
Over the months, Iran has also cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to address some of the UN nuclear watchdog’s concerns over the nuclear program.
In the future, for the two sides to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal, they still have to address two major challenges. And the first one is their long-existing trust deficit.
In fact, the nuclear problem is indeed a product of decades of distrust between Iran and the U.S.-led Western hemisphere. In order to maintain the West’s control of Iran’s oil resources, the United States, with the help of the British, staged a coup and restored in the country the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1953.
However, the Shah of Iran was toppled in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and that was exactly when Tehran and Washington began to turn against each other as adversaries, while their relations constantly deteriorated in the years afterwards.
Therefore, it is almost impossible for a pair of foes to cast away their old animosity, regain the lost trust and repair the damaged relationships in a period of time as short as several months.
In fact, the coming months could be even more perilous. Once the negotiators still cannot produce enough substantial advancement at the ensuing talks, the hard-liners back in Iran, the United States and Israel would be emboldened while the talk of distrust would ramp up again, leaving those willing to talk little room to compromise.
Additionally, another major challenge the negotiators have to cope with is how to bridge their remaining significant differences over sanction relief and uranium enrichment.
Western nations insist on massively cutting Iran’s capacity so as to prevent it from acquiring weapons-grade material, but Tehran refuses to comply, saying its enrichment is for civilian purposes only. On sanctions, Iran wants them to be lifted immediately while the West upholds a gradual removal to head off Iranian non-compliance.
If the big gaps cannot be bridged, the hard-won negotiations might have little chance to continue, and no one will benefit from it.
Once the talks broke up, the Iranian government might have to deal with even harsher pressure with more sanctions dampening its economy amid a global oil price slump. It is also possible that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may change its supportive positions for the talks.
As for the United States, had the talks gone broken, President Obama’s diplomatic legacy will suffer a major blow and Washington may have to deal with a much more complicated security situation in the Middle East where turmoil and terrorism are raging. Moreover, the international community could suffer from a major setback in the integrity of global nuclear non-proliferation system.
In the future talks, the negotiators need to be courageous and open enough to deliver real compromises, and further promote their trust. Meanwhile, Iran needs to try even harder to convince the rest of the world of the peaceful nature of its nuclear program while the West needs to acknowledge Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear power and scrap the sanctions if Tehran eventually complies.