21 Nov 2014

Monday at midnight: will we see nuclear peace in our time?

Well, maybe that’s a bit over-dramatic but a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme could lead to rapprochement between the US and the Islamic state after 35 years of enmity. Monday 24 November 2014 is the deadline.

It is no exaggeration to say this is a once in a generation opportunity. The reformist Iranian President Khatami reached out to the Americans after 9/11 but was shunned by President Bush. President Obama reached out during his first term but was rejected by President Ahmadinejad. Only now are presidents on both sides – Obama and Rouhani – open to compromise.

“If there is no deal, Iran’s moderates and reformists will be undermined and feel that there is no point in negotiating with the west,” said Ariane Tabatabaie of Harvard’s Belfer Centre.

The stakes are equally high for the Americans. If the deadine passes, a Republican-dominated congress may force through more sanctions on Iran, scuppering the chances of further talks.

Iran and the US both see the jihadis of al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants as enemies, but because of their historic enmity are not cooperating in efforts to oust them from Syria and Iraq. If they can reach a nuclear agreement it could open the way for cooperation on the fight against the jihadis and change the constellation of power in the Middle East.

This weekend, technocrats from all sides – Iran, the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany – will be in Vienna trying to hammer out a deal. If they make progress, foreign minsters including John Kerry will fly in late Sunday or Monday for the final negotiations.

The most likely outcome is a framework deal, with details to be sorted out later. That at least would keep the door open – western diplomats say that failure would be disastrous.

Reza Marashi of the National Iranian American Council has listed the main issues under discussion. The idea is that Iran would forgo its capacity to build a nuclear bomb in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Some items for negotiation sound technical, but in the end this is a political deal – it depends on political will and the ability of diplomats to sell an agreement to their hardliners back home. The Republican Congress is as much of a problem for President Obama as the hardliners in Tehran are for President Rouhani.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is often seen as an obstacle, but seems to have endorsed this process.

“We wouldn’t be where we are if Iran’s Supreme Leader wasn’t on board,” said Ariane Tabatabaie.

So, Vienna, Monday at midnight. Watch and wait.

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