Iran breakthrough could define Obama’s term in office

Analysis: a casualty of any nuclear deal could be the Israeli-Palestinian talks

The fundamental reason behind the shift in policy is believed to be the election this summer of Hassan Rouhani (above) as Iranian president. A former chief nuclear negotiator for Iran, Rouhani is perceived as a relative moderate in Iran’s Islamic political regime. Photograph: Reuters

The fundamental reason behind the shift in policy is believed to be the election this summer of Hassan Rouhani (above) as Iranian president. A former chief nuclear negotiator for Iran, Rouhani is perceived as a relative moderate in Iran’s Islamic political regime. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Nov 9, 2013, 01:00

If Thursday’s announcement by the ECB to cut interest rates took markets by surprise, yesterday it was the turn of the EU’s foreign policy wing to cause a stir.

Having trundled along for years, EU-led negotiations between Iran and the West took a remarkable turn, with negotiators for the two sides poised to sign an agreement late last night.

The development, which immediately attracted the ire of Israel, is of profound significance for both Iran’s relationship with the West and the geopolitics of the Middle East.


Detailed progress
Indications that a deal could be imminent began to emerge on Thursday, with negotiators reporting detailed progress on substantive issues during the talks in Geneva. By early yesterday a series of senior foreign ministers had announced their intention to travel to Geneva, most notably US secretary of state John Kerry, who flew from Tel Aviv following talks with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The fundamental reason behind the shift in policy is the election this summer of Hassan Rouhani as Iranian president. A former chief nuclear negotiator for Iran, Rouhani is perceived as a relative moderate in Iran’s Islamic political regime.

Previous rounds of EU-led talks – from the Istanbul talks in early 2011 to the Kazakhstan rounds early this year – had proved fruitless.

“There was simply no engagement from the Iranian side,” said one EU source close to the discussions yesterday.

With the accession of Rouhani, and Mohammad Javad Zarif’s appointment as foreign minister, this changed profoundly. Last month, following the first set of discussions since the election of Mr Rouhani, EU high representative Catherine Ashton hailed “the most detailed talks ever” between the two sides. That progress accelerated over the last few days with an agreement now likely.

Attention will now turn to the detail of the deal, which is likely to involve a commitment by Iran to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of financial and oil sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

A six-month preliminary arrangement is likely in the first instance.

EU officials stressed yesterday that any moves on nuclear capability would have to be verifiable and would likely to involve inspections. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are due to fly to Tehran next week and are likely to seek access to nuclear facilities.


‘Modest’ lifting of sanctions
As questions almost immediately began to be raised on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama said any lifting of sanctions would be “modest”, while John Kerry appeared to talk down expectations of an agreement on arrival in Geneva yesterday afternoon saying that “important gaps” still had to be closed.

Israel has reacted furiously to the prospect of a deal with Mr Netanyahu vowing Israel would do “everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people.”

The most obvious casualty of any deal with Iran may be the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which are being shepherded through by Mr Kerry.

Saudi Arabia, a US ally in the gulf, is also unlikely to be happy with any relaxation of the West’s stance on Tehran.

These consequences may be a price worth paying for the US, however. Less than three months after it withdrew from intervention in Syria, the Obama administration may be keen to show it wants to make its mark on Middle Eastern policy. Last week President Obama dispatched allies to Congress to argue that plans under consideration at the moment to tighten sanctions on Iran should be put on hold.

Achieving a breakthrough on a decade-long standoff with Iran could become one of the defining foreign policy achievements of the current US administration.