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UPDATED: July 23, 2015 NO. 50 DECEMBER 11, 2014
Necessary Negotiations
Finding a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue is imperative for both the Middle East and the world
By Qin Tian

The two negotiation extensions within half a year demonstrate that both sides would prefer to maintain talks rather than risk open conflict. If the talks are abandoned, Iran could restart or even upgrade its nuclear program, and the United States would likely respond with tougher sanctions or even military strikes. The stakes are high—for Washington and Teheran, the Middle East as a whole and even the world at large.

U.S. President Barack Obama has promised not to add new sanctions and, as per the Geneva deal, Iran will be able to export 1 million barrels of oil per day in the following seven months. The current situation, while not ideal, is acceptable to both sides.

Even if a comprehensive deal cannot be reached in the near future, maintaining the current talks and the interim agreement are common objectives for both sides.

Consequences of failure

If the talks fail, it would be a major blow for both Washington and Teheran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power last year, is strongly promoting the nuclear talks and constructive interactions with the outside world. The progress of the talks can be seen as the most important achievement of Rouhani thus far. If the negotiations hit a dead end, the Iranian president is certain to come under siege from domestic political opposition. This would not only hinder the Rouhani administration's governance and reform in other areas but also shake the foundations of their rule.

For President Obama, who has made few diplomatic achievements in the past six years, the Iranian nuclear issue may present one of only a few chances to shape his diplomatic legacy. Moreover, the talks are also important for the Obama administration's Middle East strategy adjustment to control turmoil in the region. Iran is a key player in almost all of the region's most pressing issues such as the Syrian civil war, Islamic State (IS) extremism as well as the reconstruction of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. If the nuclear talks fail, Iran may become a liability for the United States' Middle East strategy.

Additionally, the current situation in the Middle East is also favorable for Iranian nuclear talks. At the UN Assembly in September, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier implicitly said that given the current international and regional situation, the Iranian nuclear talks must not fail. At the moment, the most urgent threat in the Middle East is the IS extremist movement. The United States and Iran have similar concerns over fighting against IS extremists in Iraq and Syria. Though the two countries have no official cooperation in combating the extremists, they have formed a tacit agreement. If the nuclear talks break down, that implicit agreement may also suffer.

Given the difficulties of the nuclear talks, and the regional and domestic situations facing Iran and the United States, an extension of the negotiations is necessary and inevitable. However, due to uncertainties, a lack of progress and even regression in the talks may become normal in the coming years. The two extensions already granted should not be repeated for a third time.

On the plus side, these extensions can help Washington and Teheran solidify their consensus and accumulate mutual trust, helping to keep the talks on the right track. However, repeated extensions will also waste the impetus of all negotiating parties and even the opportunities for nuclear talks created by Rouhani's taking power. Thus, extensions also come with a price.

Both the Obama and Rouhani administrations need to placate domestic opposition to the nuclear talks with a strong will and sophisticated methods. In the U.S. mid-term election in November, the Republicans won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in one stroke. The Republican Party has always been tough on Iran, with most sanctions bills against Iran having been proposed by Republicans. At present, Republicans have declared that nuclear talks cannot be extended again, and the outcome of the negotiations needs the approval of the Congress, which will certainly confine Obama administration's flexibility in nuclear talks. The same goes for Iran. Iranian hardliners think that in the past year, they have shown the United States enough respect and given Rouhani enough autonomy to deal with the nuclear issue, and are therefore opposed to making any further concessions.

It will not be surprising if phased results are achieved during the extension but not a real breakthrough. The governments of both sides must act skillfully in order to address this serious issue while serving their respective peoples.

The author is a researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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