Grab some popcorn, folks! The third round in the latest set of nuclear talks between the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (P5+1) and Iran are starting soon, and everyone is hoping this round ends with an agreement. To provide some background and help navigate the often confusing waters of the Iranian nuclear crisis, here are some things to know before Geneva III.
What even is the nuclear crisis? Does Iran have nukes?
The nuclear crisis more or less started in 2002, when it became known that Iran had restarted their nuclear program. The program had been halted after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but was secretly resumed. Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an agreement that allows for the peaceful use of nuclear technology but requires member states to forego any weaponization programs. In Iran’s case, although inspectors are on the ground ensuring no weapons program is underway, many feel Iran could still be pursuing a nuclear weapon in secret. Iran insists they aren’t, but the international community is not convinced. That is the crux of the crisis.
2002 is quite a while ago. Why hasn’t this been resolved?
A lot is wrapped up in these talks. For Iran, particularly now that sanctions have started having a massive impact on the economy, getting those sanctions lifted is a top priority. For the P5+1, securing enough transparency to be sure Iran doesn’t have a weapons program is the most important part of any agreement.
A tit-for-tat solution should be easy in this case, but there are two major obstacles. The first of these is that neither the U.S. nor Iran wants to be seen as backing down. Iran, a state that has a sordid history with Western powers, doesn’t want to lose any sovereignty. The nuclear issue has become a key nationalist issue for many Iranians, although fewer now than in the past on account of rapid and crippling inflation and unemployment due to sanctions. Meanwhile, the U.S. can’t be seen as “soft” on a country often thought of as hostile to Israel, a key regional ally. With Congress continuing to push forward with new sanctions even as talks are underway, it’s important for U.S. negotiators to maintain pressure lest an agreement be disparaged as giving up too much.
Then you have the fact that Iran and the U.S. haven’t had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled a pro-U.S. monarch in favor of the theocratic system in place today. With no trust on either side, finding a way to compromise is even more difficult than usual. Neither side wants to blink, and neither side entirely trusts the other to follow through on an agreement. As a result, all prior talks have broken down before an agreement can be reached.
Why might these talks be any different?
I’m so glad you asked! Believe it or not, this round of talks has already proven more encouraging than any other. In August, President Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated, having won the June election on a platform advocating increased transparency of the nuclear program and a foreign policy based on moderation. This was in sharp contrast to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani’s predecessor and famed frustrating person. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran took a hardline on the nuclear issue. But under Rouhani, the nuclear portfolio has been moved to the Foreign Ministry, meaning Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is heading talks. Zarif is known in the West as a skilled diplomat, and he and Secretary of State John Kerry have already met multiple times to negotiate a solution. As Kerry recently said, during the last set of talks Iran and the U.S. spoke more in 30 hours than they had in 30 years.
That, compounded with statements from the Supreme Leader suggesting that he supports Rouhani’s foreign policy and the necessity the regime sees in getting sanctions at least eased to kick start economic recovery has created an atmosphere that could be conducive to reaching an agreement, assuming the P5+1 takes proper advantage of the situation.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, is the main bossman in charge of the Iranian government. He’ll have final say on the nuclear agreement, and is seen as a bit of a wildcard since the method by which he makes decisions is kept quiet. As I said, it appears that he’s backing Rouhani for now, but that could change if an agreement fails to provide enough economic relief. Interestingly, Rouhani formerly served as chief nuclear negotiator for Iran, and secured the only agreement to date by pulling out his cell phone and personally calling the Supreme Leader during negotiations to convince him the proposed plan was a good idea.
So why haven’t there been formal talks on this before?
Relations with Iran broke down after the revolution in 1979, and promptly came to an end after students overtook the U.S. embassy that same year. The hostage crisis that ensued lasted 444 days, ending when the Iranians finally released the embassy staff being held. With no formal diplomatic ties, tension and animosity has developed unchecked between Iran and the U.S. for over 30 years. Although we have had talks before—Afghanistan, for example, is an issue we’ve worked together on—formal, high level talks have been seen as politically risky on both sides. That Kerry and Zarif are breaking that taboo now (and Rouhani and Obama did so as well with a phone call last month) suggests an unprecedented dedication to finding a solution.
What role does Israel have in all this?
Israel and Iran haven’t had relations since the Islamic Revolution either, and have been antagonistic towards each other to say the least. Iran supports groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which have been involved in conflicts with Israel due to the ever-lingering question of Palestinian sovereignty. Israel, for their part, has been accused of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and cyber attacks on the nuclear program.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been (not-so) gently urging the U.S. to carry out strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, and is unlikely to be pleased with any agreement reached during talks. Thanks in part to hostile rhetoric and the occasional mistranslation, Israel has effectively cast Iran as an existential threat, particularly if able to build a nuclear weapon. As such, opposition to any kind of nuclear program, including the peaceful sort Iran is guaranteed access to under the NPT, has become his key effort.
Netanyahu has always taken a hardline on Iran’s nuclear program. His outspoken involvement and lobbying of the U.S government has been called into question numerous times. Not only is Israel not a member of .the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it’s a poorly kept secret that Israel has nuclear weapons of their own. Netanyahu has also been claiming Iran is months away from building a weapon since the 1990s. Although Israel is not part of the negotiations, given the close relationship they have with the US their opinion is always at the top of US lawmakers attention.
What happened at the last round of talks?
After a preliminary round addressing basic issues and at which Iran proposed a plan, the second round was meant to begin negotiations on an actual agreement. The details of the proposal and any possible agreement are being kept secret—a move probably designed to keep expectations from running wild and discourage the media from preemptively arguing for or against it. Although by all accounts it seems talks were heading towards an agreement at the last round, it was reported that negotiators were unable to finalize details. Initial comments suggested France, possibly trying to curry favor with Saudi Arabia and Israel, was the holdout. More recently, Secretary Kerry claimed it was Iran that was unable to agree at the last minute, a comment that sparked a subtweet from Foreign Minister Zarif. So we’re not entirely sure what happened, but not reaching an agreement after two rounds doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Let’s say they reach an agreement. What comes next?
Any agreement reached will likely be preliminary, in that it will open the door to greater cooperation to fully resolve the nuclear issue in the future. So negotiations will be on-going, in addition to negotiations going on between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which implements the NPT. At this stage, one of the biggest payoffs of a deal will be trust building in order to facilitate a comprehensive solution.
If Iran-U.S. talks work here, it does open the door for discussion of other issues. A number of states have called for Iran’s involvement in talks on the Syrian civil war, but as of yet the U.S. has been cold to the idea. Iran is close to the Bashar al-Assad government, due in part to Syria’s being the only country to support Iran during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. But Syria is extremely complicated, and it’s difficult to say what impact Iran could have or whether their influence on al-Assad could be used to create stability given the presence of groups like al-Qaeda.
The fact that high level talks are taking place at all is groundbreaking, so it’s difficult to know where it could go from here. Remember that three months ago it was unthinkable that we would see pictures of the U.S. Secretary of State and the Iranian Foreign Minister actually joking during a meeting or our respective Presidents would talk on the phone. A lot has changed very quickly, and the best thing the average citizen can do to help urge things along is to keep expectations in check, have patience, and avoid getting swept up in media frenzy. Thirty-four years of mistrust can’t be overcome in six months, but we’ve taken the all important first steps!
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