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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: April 13, 2015 NO. 16 APRIL 16, 2015
A Resolution or a Mirage?
Despite steps taken in Iran nuclear talks, satisfying all parties remains a daunting task
By Bai Shi

JUBILANT RETURN: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (center) greets people as the delegation returned to Tehran on April 3 (XINHUA/AFP)

Top negotiators of the Iran nuclear talks reached a preliminary deal in Lausanne of Switzerland on April 2, marking another step toward capping the marathon negotiations by the end of June.

Negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 countries--namely the United States, France, Britain, Russia, and China plus Germany--have agreed to key parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), according to a joint statement issued at a press conference held in Lausanne.

"This is a crucial decision, laying great bases for the final text of the JCPOA," said European Union (EU) Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini who chaired the intensive negations from March 26 to April 2.

Mogherini made the statement on behalf of all parties, saying that all sides agreed that Iran's enrichment capacity, enrichment level and stockpile will be limited for a specific duration and there will be no additional enrichment facilities besides Iran's Natanz nuclear plant.

As the framework agreement was reached, all parties expressed optimism in their ability to resolve the Iran nuclear issue by June 30.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference that "our political understanding opens the door to a long-term resolution to the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the framework is a major step toward resolving the nuclear issue, adding that he hoped it could remedy the mutual distrust between Iran and the United States.

He also reiterated at a press conference that Iran's nuclear program "has an exclusively peaceful nature."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the reaching of consensus is "good news" for the international community. "All parties have made concerted efforts to lay a solid foundation for reaching a final resolution," he added.

Wang said that the Iran nuclear program is of deep concern to the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. He went on to defend Iran's right to peacefully use nuclear energy, noting that resolving the issue through negotiations meets with the common interests of the international community and conforms to the principles of the UN Charter.

Wang called on all parties to continually advance the negotiation until a final settlement is reached.

Needed by all

The Iran nuclear talks have dragged on for 12 years amid deep distrust and suspicion, so one might ask why all sides were able to reach a framework deal at this particular time.

"The negotiations achieved a framework agreement now because all sides felt it was necessary to do so," said Yin Gang, a researcher on West Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In the last decade, the United States and the EU have imposed strict sanctions on Iran's financial, energy and trade sectors, aiming to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program. In 2006, the UN Security Council approved a series of resolutions of sanctions against Iran after it refused to suspend uranium enrichment.

Yin said that the frozen U.S.-Iran ties and decades-long Western sanctions have led to heavy economic losses on the Iranian side, and the Iranian people are eager to see an end to the sanctions. Recently, the fall of oil prices on the global market has dealt a further blow to Iran's economy. If the diplomatic situation is not improved, Iran's political and economic situation will face dire threats.

U.S. President Barack Obama made a promise to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis in his presidential tenure, and had generally ruled out the possibility of using military means. The president had less than two years in office and actively sought to end the stalemate by allowing Iran to develop nuclear energy programs for peaceful purposes only--a compromise that would in turn stand as a lasting political legacy for the American leader, Yin said.

Gao Zugui, professor of international strategy at the Beijing-based Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, said "the preliminary deal is needed for all sides."

If the Iran nuclear issue can be resolved through peaceful means, U.S.-Iran relations are likely to be restored and the United States will gain a great strategic advantage in the Middle East. Other sides of the talks are also pleased to see a final deal on curbing Iran nuclear programs and lifting sanctions against the country. If Iran again participates in the global economic integration, it will certainly do its part to maintain security and stability in the Middle East, Gao said.

Divergence not yet mended

However, the road toward a comprehensive accord is tough as the framework deal is made only in principle. A wide gap remains for the major powers and Iran to reach consensus on some key issues of the final agreement, such as the amount of centrifuges and the lifting of sanctions.

The United States and other major powers have demanded that Iran keep its uranium stockpile at a minimal level for peaceful research and use. Moreover, U.S. negotiators insist on putting Iran's missiles under international oversight. In response, Iran insisted that the United States and the EU lift all sanctions immediately.

Li Shaoxian, an expert on Middle Eastern issues, said that in the next three months, the negotiations should be carried out on a step-by-step basis with reciprocity being the key.

China and the EU should continue upholding the negotiations and persuade the United States and Iran to make a compromise for the sake of reaching a final agreement, Li added.

As for details in the framework agreement, the two governments of the United States and Iran have different interpretations, emphasizing their own concerns rather than possible compromises.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif said to his people that, "We will continue enriching and we will continue research and development." He also stressed that the common solutions are non-binding.

The United States outlined some key technical details that Iran agreed to in the framework deal. For example, Iran agreed that it will not build a new uranium enrichment facility for the next 15 years. However, Iran neglected to mention this detail in the statement to its people.

With regard to economic sanctions, Iran said the United States and the EU will immediately eliminate all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions when the final agreement is signed. But the U.S. negotiators said that the sanctions will be suspended only after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms Iran has honored its nuclear-related commitments--a process that could take years.

Furthermore, voices of opposition are very strong in both the United States and Iran.

In Washington, the Republican-dominated Congress has been staunchly opposed to reaching a deal with Iran. Some senators have threatened to impose fresh sanctions on Iran and frustrate any conclusive agreement.

In Iran, hardliners are also disappointed with the deal, holding that Iran's compromises will harm its national interests and that the IAEA's nuclear inspections will violate Iranian sovereignty.

Nuclear race risk

Professor Gao said that once the final deal is reached, Iran's nuclear capacity will be revealed to the international community, possibly fueling a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Arabian countries would seek to equip themselves with nuclear weapons, which will add new uncertainties to the most unstable region in the world.

The U.S. Arabian allies are now fighting in Yemen against Shiite rebels who are supposedly supported by Iran. Arabian countries with a Sunni majority might find it unacceptable if the nuclear talks benefit Iran. Therefore, the theoretical final agreement might further complicate the situation in the Middle East, Yin said.

As a major foe of Iran, Israel has warned repeatedly that it would take preemptive measures to destroy Iran's nuclear program. One main reason Israel has not yet done so is that the United States has convinced Israel it will resolve the issue through diplomatic means, said Yin.

But thus far, Israel is disappointed with the negotiation outcomes. If Iran violates the agreement in the future, the possibility of a military confrontation between Israel and Iran will sharply increase, Yin added.

Copyedited by Joseph Halvorson

Comments to baishi@bjreview.com

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