Iran talks still face hurdles, with only days left

Iran talks still face hurdles, with only days left
Analysis: The deadline for a deal over Iran's nuclear programme is a week away - but major obstacles remain, and failure could spell the end of all talks between Washington and Tehran.
5 min read
17 March, 2015
While talks have reportedly been friendly, negotiators are under pressure to salvage a deal [Getty]
The Obama administration has reiterated it will "walk away" if Iran doesn't agree to "shutting down every path" that could lead towards a nuclear weapon.

The Iranian camp has been more cautious in its language, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif telling the Iranian news agency IRNA, "Solutions are within reach. At the same time, we are apart on some issues."

Time is not in the negotiators' favour, with a March 24 deadline looming for an agreement between Iran and six major powers - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - on the broad contours of a deal on Iran's nuclear programme.
     These kinds of messages cause concern and will raise questions about whether the Americans can be relied on
- Timothy Stafford, RUSI

Success is far from assured and failure to meet the impending deadline could ring the death knell for the whole process.

Back to the table

The US and Iranian delegations, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Javad Zarif began another round of talks on Tuesday in the Swiss city of Lausanne, after the Iranians returned overnight from Brussels where they had met European foreign ministers.

The last round of talks came to a close in November with no substantial agreement - except to keep on with the negotiations - but Kerry and Zarif may find it impossible to secure another extension if they come away empty handed once again.    

The teams in Switzerland need at least to outline a political framework agreement that would curb Tehran's most sensitive nuclear activities for at least ten years in exchange for the gradual easing of some sanctions.

If they succeed in drafting an agreement by the end of the month then they will aim to flesh out all of the technical details of the accord by June 30.

US pressure

When the negotiations kicked off early last year most attention was focused on whether President Rouhani and his team of reformists would be able to sell a nuclear deal, and any concessions that would entail, to the more conservative elements of the leadership in Tehran.

Now, as the deadline looms, the gaze has shifted to the Obama administration's capacity to rein in its detractors who are mounting a concerted campaign in the US Congress that threatens to undermine the diplomatic process.

Only last week a group of 47 Republican senators sent an open letter to the Islamic Republic's leadership, warning that any nuclear deal signed by Obama could be undermined by his successor or even Congress itself. 

The highly controversial and unprecedented letter was raised by Zarif in Switzerland and highlighted the difficulties Obama and his team could have on following through on a deal.

"The Iranian priority is sanctions relief, so clearly these kinds of messages cause concern and will raise questions about whether the Americans can be relied on to guarantee any deal that is agreed upon," said Timothy Stafford, a research analyst with the Royal United Services Institute's proliferation and nuclear policy team.

Resistance within the halls of US power to any deal without greater congressional oversight, or even any deal at all, remains a bipartisan issue - despite the fact that all of the signatories to last week's letter were Republicans.

Some of the most stubborn thorns in President Obama's side are grown from within his own party.

A number of Democratic senators have said, while they were dismayed by the Republicans' letter, it would not compel them to drop their support for bills in the pipeline that could scupper the negotiations.

The administration has toiled behind the scenes and succeeded in staving off the threats emanating from Congress - but that would likely change if there is no deal come March 24.

     Sanctions have a multiplier effect by outright stopping some trade but also by creating an abundance of caution
- Timothy Stafford, RUSI


A group of ten Democrats wrote to President Obama this month and committed to not supporting a bill that would allow Congress to reject a nuclear deal until after March 24, which correlated with a similar deadline set by 12 Democrats in a January message to Obama regarding a bill that could see fresh sanctions slapped on Iran.


While the Americans' dirty laundry is clearly on show for all to see, the dynamics within the Iranian government are harder to read.

Zarif and his team are ultimately reliant on approval from Tehran - and Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner coiterie are somewhat more circumspect than their counterparts in Washington.

What is clear is that Iran desperately desires sanctions relief to breath life into its battered economy. Not only are the sanctions taking their toll, but the drastic drop in oil prices this past year is also biting hard.

"Sanctions have a multiplier effect by outright stopping some trade but also by creating an abundance of caution and discouraging potential investment or trade," explained RUSI's Stafford.

"Similarly, an easing of sanctions could have a positive multiplier affect and the Iranian economy is in need of that right now."

Cynicism and doubt do, however, prevail among much of the Iranian elite about the sincerity and commitment of the negotiators sitting across the table.

Zarif and his men will need to be able to ensure that they have watertight guarantees that there will be no backpedaling on promises of sanctions relief - clearly a tough task considering the wranglings afoot on Capitol Hill. 

Any deal could also be viewed with suspicion among the conservative clergy and hardliners in Iran as potentially undermining their authority if it is considered part of a wider rapprochement that opens up to greater western trade, political involvement and normalisation.


Diplomats on both sides of the table have warned that there are still significant "sticking points".

Iran wants significant sanctions relief straight off the back of any deal, while European and American negotiators are pushing for gradual sanctions relief once Iran has shown it is complying with the agreement and is cooperating with inspections.

A more recent obstacle emerging is the so called "sunset clause" outlining what may happen once the the deal has expired, which would likely be after around ten years.

Iran's enemies and detractors fear that once the deal has expired they will be economically rejuvenated and in a position to resume their nuclear programme.

The US and its allies are pushing for assurances that this will not happen and vigorous inspections will stay in place - something Iran will be deeply reiticent to agree to.

It's clearly going to be a busy week ahead in Switzerland.