The Nov. 24th deadline for a final deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is fast approaching, with talks between Iran and six world powers remaining difficult. While failure to reach a deal doesn’t mean there won’t be another temporary deal, it will damage relations and give both sides reasons to provoke the other. The talks come at a time when the US and Iran need each other more than ever, with both sides fiercely opposing the Islamic State. So what are the issues being discussed? What are the potential stumbling blocks? And just how complex of a political game is this?
The main problem with Iran having a nuclear programme is that the world powers (the UN Five + Germany) have very little faith in Iran. They suspect that Iran is actually trying to create a nuclear weapon, and want them to stop the process of uranium enrichment, which can lead to a bomb. Iran though insists that the enrichment process is solely for energy, that the use of nuclear weapons is un-Islamic and that the outside world is an unreliable source of the uranium it needs. Knowing the truth is impossible, as both sides make different statements at different times, but it seems that Iran halted weaponsation of uranium in 2003, while continuing with research and enrichment that could allow it to build a bomb if necessary.
To world powers the idea of Iran having a nuclear bomb is deeply worrying. It would throw the balance of power in the Middle East completely out, and encourage rivals like Saudi Arabia to build their own bomb. The fact that Iran supports organisations like Hezbollah and is a firm enemy of Israel is a further worry. While no open military measures have been taken, Israel has launched a behind the scenes assault on the nuclear programme. In 2010 a highly sophisticated computer worm called Stuxnet was introduced into Iranian computer systems and caused severe damage to software and even hardware. Five Iranian nuclear scientists were also assassinated inside Iran. While no one has ever claimed responsibility, the computer worm was almost certainly introduced by Israel with possible US assistance, while the assassinations are more likely to have been a lone action by Israel.
With the election of President Hassan Rouhani and his more moderate foreign policy, all efforts are in diplomacy for the time being. However, there are still issues in the way of a deal. Both sides still disagree on how much uranium Iran can enrich, and on when the crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy should be lifted. Hardliners on both sides also pose an issue, with Republicans in Congress unhappy with any deal with Iran. However, in Iran one of the hardliners is at the top – the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Just this week he released a nine-step plan for the elimination of Israel. His plan for the destruction of the “fake Zionist regime” involves a referendum in which only the ‘original’ inhabitants of Palestine would be able to vote, and the eventual exile of Jewish immigrants back to their ‘home countries’. Until this happens, he says that the West Bank must be armed to enable them to fight Israel, while not calling for all out war. Releasing this plan while talks are going on is a bizarre move, giving Israel even more evidence that Iran is an existential threat, and strengthening the resolve of the West.
The nuclear talks also tie into a complex global power game, where everyone’s interests collide. Iran and the US both want to stop Islamic State and need to cooperate, but Iran supports Shi’a militias in Iraq that are almost as violent as IS. Iran’s help is needed to bring an end to the civil war in Syria, but that means negotiating with al-Assad. Israel thinks Iran wants to destroy it (with good reason), and regularly threatens to strike Iran first. Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states want to limit Iran’s power in the Middle East, and US negotiations with Iran damage American ties with these regional allies. Russia doesn’t want Iran to have nukes, but also wants something from the US in exchange for pressuring Iran – and has just announced they will assist Iran with peaceful nuclear reactors. With such an array of interests, finding a final deal isn’t easy. But both sides know that if they don’t, it’s back to full on confrontation – and that’s the last thing the Middle East needs.