Iran nuclear talks’ deadline extended: the match is still open for many

Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC and Coordinator and negotiator for the E3+3 group in the Iran nuclear negotiations, John Kerry, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Laurent Fabius, French Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development, at New York in September. The don't seem so happy now after the latest negotiations for Iran's nuclear programme. (EC Audiovisual Services, 25/09/2014)

Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC and Coordinator and negotiator for the E3+3 group in the Iran nuclear negotiations, John Kerry, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Laurent Fabius, French Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development, at New York in September. The don’t seem so happy now after the latest negotiations for Iran’s nuclear programme. (EC Audiovisual Services, 25/09/2014)

One year and one day has passed since the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was forged in Geneva, on November 24 2013, between Iran and the P5+1 Countries. The interim agreement went into effect on January 2014, and its first extension deadline was set to 24 November 2014, the date that was originally seen as the time for decision to be taken.

But the six countries – the United States, France, Germany, Russia, China and Britain – which have been in negotiations with Iran failed on Monday for a second time this year to resolve their long dispute over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. This was one of the biggest news that came out of the tenth round of nuclear negotiations held in Vienna.

The deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran has been extended to the end of June, meaning that the seven powers officially gave themselves seven more months to reach a comprehensive agreement. According to Reuters, Western officials said they were willing to secure a final accord by March but that more time would be needed to reach a consensus on the more technical details. British foreign secretary Philip Hammond has reportedly said it was not possible to meet the November deadline due to wide gaps on well-known points of contention, and that expert level talks will resume in December.

“We don’t want just any agreement” Secretary of State John Kerry told a conference after the conclusion of the talks, last weekend in the Austrian capital. “We want the right agreement”, he added. “We would be fools to walk away,” Mr. Kerry stated in an all-round positive mode, which probably failed to cover all the doubts the lacking agreement left. And also some disappointment. “These talks are not going to get easier just because we extend them. They’re tough. They’ve been tough. And they’re going to stay tough,” he told reporters in Vienna.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani’s displayed general optimism with his sayings. He said on Monday that a nuclear deal with world powers would be done despite a missed deadline in Vienna. “Most of the gaps have been removed,” Mr. Rouhani added on state television, referring to major differences that have so far prevented an interim deal being turned into a comprehensive settlement. In his speech on national television, he also casted the outcome of Vienna talks as some kind of victory for his part, saying that the fact that his country is seeking an accord with the West had not damaged Iran’s nuclear programme.

The situation is still quite complex, and the negotiation phase itself carries a lot of interests. There is still quite a big questionmark for the European Union too, and the role that it will play from now on. The EU has been playing a significant role since 2003 in the whole process as a negotiator and a supporter of a diplomatic solution. That was the EU to have spoken, and this was a big victory itself, but when the whole negotiation process got into a much more complex phase, in the last months, individuals played a crucial role.

Now there is a huge discussion on who will continue to handle the Iran nuclear question from the EU side. Former European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s role in the Iran nuclear talks is under discussion, and this was basically announced days before the meetings in Vienna started. Ms. Ashton has chaired the six-power group negotiating with Iran since becoming EU foreign policy chief in 2010. In July, when the Iranian nuclear talks were extended, the six-power group asked Ms. Ashton to stay in the job until the November 24 deadline, but with talks now set to continue for another seven months, her stay became unlikely.

The new EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, said earlier on Monday she would discuss in coming days with her predecessor what should happen with the role, and so a decision is yet to come. Indeed many think her stay would cast shadow over the new High Representative, as Ms. Ashton no longer holds an official EU role.

However, in such difficult and delicate political situation, a skilled figure like Ashton would probably help the negotiations to speed up. It’s clear to everyone that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s role as the key person in the process has been growing since Ms. Ashton’s mandate came to an end. But the EU doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to maintain a pivotal role to try to push the talks forward.

All sides strongly want a deal because it would be the convenient thing for both parts. And also because there is no real alternative, except war. At the same time pressure is quite high for both Western and Iranian leaders. US President Barack Obama in particular has to overcome strong domestic debate started by Republican Senators, who say the extension should be coupled with increased sanctions. On the other hand Mr. Rouhani has been facing significant opposition to his agenda, after he promised to reduce Iran’s isolation but also to ensure the future ability to enrich uranium.

Tehran repeatedly dismissed any military aims claimed by Western countries that its nuclear program might have, saying it is completely peaceful. However, the six powers’ aim is to curb further the uranium enrichment to basically lengthen the time Iran would need to build a bomb.

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