Conversation: Iranian Nuclear Negotiations
Ben Sheen: Hello and thank you for joining us. My name is Ben Sheen. I'm a managing editor here at Stratfor, and today, I'm joined by Vice President of Global Analysis Reva Bhalla. We'll be talking a little bit about the ongoing Iranian negotiations. So Reva, the negotiations are still ongoing, and surprise surprise, we haven’t had any kind of agreement so far. Where do we actually stand at the moment?
Reva Bhalla: Well as of now, they're still in talks at the deputy foreign minister level, so a step down from yesterday, when we had the foreign ministers in Lausanne. It's a worrying prospect because, basically, we're now looking at the prospect of a potentially more diluted political agreement coming out that broadly outlines where they’ve made progress and where there are still some sticking points. And so that leaves a question of if the whole intent behind the self-imposed deadline for March was for the president to keep Congress at bay, is this going to be enough to do so? And will that further complicate the three-month stretch to the June 30 deadline, which is the one that really matters for both Iran and the United States.
Ben: Now, we've seen mixed signals here because the Iranians and the Russians have been sounding fairly positive, and you have the British foreign minister, Philip Hammond, saying we have a framework, but we're not quite there yet. What do you think of the main sticking points? What's really holding up the negotiations themselves?
Reva: On one side, it's how do you contain the Iranian nuclear ambitions? That has several components to it. You can do that by limiting the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to maintain operationally, the design of those centrifuges (some are more advanced than others), and then the amount that's going to be diluted, stockpiled or shipped out of the country. So all kinds of things in addition to inspections of sensitive facilities in Iran. There's a lot of room within all those components for some give and take. Where we hit the snag was basically when Iran said, it was willing to concede on reducing the number of centrifuges from 10,000, which was the earlier demand by the supreme leader, to around 6,000. But, it's throwing out this concession on shipping nuclear fuel out of the country. That's a pretty common negotiating tactic, though. When you're throwing that curveball and it looks like everything is about to fall apart, it can deflect attention to other more-sensitive issues and soften up demands along the way. So, I'm not particularly surprised that it was tried and that it's holding up the talks at this stage, but I think the Iranians were all along set on the June 30 deadline more than anything. They're very interested in the timeline and pace of how sanctions are actually going to relieved, and that's a very complicated process.
Ben: Perhaps we're seeing Tehran fight a kind of shaping battle in anticipation of what they see as the main event. How realistic do you think it is that sanctions will get lifted?
Reva: The sanctions question is a very complicated one. There are multiple players here. On the one hand, the most immediate action you're going to see is when it comes to the U.N. sanctions, and that's where, basically, the U.N. Security Council is going to likely pass some sort of resolution that restates whatever political agreement comes out of the talks. That's not really important in terms of trade or energy or anything like that, but it lays an important political foundation for other states to start easing up on Iran. So the Europeans and the big Asian consumers of Iranian energy can start to adapt their laws and policies to allow more Iranian oil exports and ease up on the financial and shipping insurance restrictions on Iran. The United States, on the other hand, is a conundrum when it comes to sanctions. Really, what's going to happen here is the U.S. president is going to have to rely on his waver authority. He can suspend sanctions for 120-day periods. There's no limit on the number of times that he can extend those waivers. It's not a perfect way to do it, but it's really the only way to do it. In the meantime, he's going to have to show that over a period of at least a year or so, are the Iranians complying? And if so, maybe we can see the administration pass some sort of motion thorough Congress that calls for a repealing of sanctions, but in an election year, that's obviously going to be very difficult.
Ben: Very much so. Now, clearly these negotiations aren’t happening in isolation. In the region, we're seeing a lot of instability. We've seen Iranian forces effectively play a part in the ground in Anbar Province in Iraq and Salahuddin province. And currently in Yemen, where you have the Saudis taking a very active role in the situation there. How is this affecting the power-dynamics in the region form Tehran's point of view?
Reva: Let's start this by looking at this from the Saudi perspective. They see a U.S.-Iranian developing rapprochement as inevitable. Regardless of what happens on this deadline or that deadline, they see that relationship developing. So Saudi Arabia is basically taking it upon itself to shoulder more burden in the region to say, "Okay, if the U.S. is not going to be the one that we can rely on to stand up to the Iranians, then we have to assume leadership for that." And that's where we see a very assertive Saudi Arabia pulling together this coalition of partners, which we're learning a lot of those partners were reluctant to even join in that coalition for Yemen, but nonetheless, Saudi money speaks quite loudly in some of these states. And you see the Saudi leadership in the spotlight. From the American point of view, that's a pretty good thing. The U.S. doesn’t want to be in the center of the fight. It is glad to see the regional players, whether its Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iran, to have them be at the center of the conflict and managing the country's crises, however messy they may be.
Ben: Very much so. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics in the region evolve and how it affects the negotiations building up to an inevitable, hopefully a conclusion in June. Reva, thank you so much for taking the time to explain this to us today.
Reva: Of course.
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