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How important a nuclear deal with Iran is?

By Cristina Casabón

Changes in Iran and regional dynamics make a nuclear deal more likely. Iran and the P5+ 1 – Russia, China, France, Britain, the US and Germany – could reach a final agreement on Tehran’s nuclear energy program before a November 24 deadline. ECFR’s policy fellow Ellie Geranmayeh visited Madrid yesterday. ECFR’s Madrid office hosted a press lunch, where we discussed the importance and fundamental points of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the US, the role of the European Union and the regional dynamics.

As Geranmaveh said, this nuclear deal is a priority for the Obama’s Administration as it would have an important impact in his legacy. It would represent his highest success in foreign policy: by reaching a final agreement, the US can set a historic precedent that safeguards global security by containing Iran’s ability to actively pursue a weaponised nuclear programme.

Last November both sides signed the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), which took effect on January 20. Under this agreement, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for some economic relief while negotiations continued. In July, all sides agreed to extend this deal until November 24. Just two weeks before the deadline for negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1, they are discussing Iran’s domestic enrichment capacity, the associated numbers of centrifuges, – the so-called “numbers game” – and fixing the duration of a final deal. Can negotiations between the US President Obama and the Iranian President Hasan Rouhaní reach a deal after this month’s deadline?

Oppositions groups, among the US Congress, will try to stop concessions. During the last 10 years, the US vowed to apply toughest sanctions and mobilised the international community to isolate Iran. This policy has ensured than Iran does not get the equipment required to sustain its nuclear program. However, the economy and the banking sector have been damaged and the sanctions had harmed Iran’s middle classes.  In case that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei doesn’t act pragmatically, the agreement could be paralysed or extended, but this is less probable, because Mr Rohani needs relief from sanctions.

“Europeans have payed a high price, but they are not leading the boat.”

As the ECFR’s policy fellow Ellie Geranmayeh explained in Politica Exterior, it’s time for Europe to show its capacity to achieve a diplomatic solution. Strategic thinking in European politics can minimise the differences over Iran’s enrichment capacity and centrifuge numbers, and encourage both sides to reach a deal.

Furthermore, if nuclear negotiations continue positively, Europeans can play a key role in implementing them. It will be the first step to rebuild confidence between both sides and develop a transnational relationship with Iran, as diplomatic ties between EU and Iran are less conditioned by ideological differences. As Geranmayeh explained, “Europeans have sufficient diplomatic, economic and policy instruments to strengthen their position in this region through nuclear negotiations.”

But what would be EU position if a nuclear deal is not reached? If after this long process, the US Congress blocks the White House negotiations, or Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other key actors don’t support its President, Europe couldn’t act independently to savage diplomacy with Teheran, because EU internal position won’t change the general dynamic.

Regional dynamics are being discussed 

Can nuclear negotiations lead to a change in other key regional issues? The regional context has changed, and perhaps the European Union and the United States are considering a closer relationship with the government of Rouhani to slow the progress of Islamic State. ISIS coalition has weakened Iran’s position in the region, and sharing as it does a  common border with Iraq, Iran is concerned about its internal security.

Even so, there should be no illusions about the extent to which Iran and Western countries could work together against the Islamic State. Geranmayeh pointed out that “while tactical coordination is currently possible, cooperation is improvable, no least because of domestic politics.” Syria and Iran are strategic allies and until now this alliance has effectively excluded Iran from officially partaking in the international coalition agains ISIS.

In a special report about IranThe Economist highlighted that Americans are concerned about a large number of issues: “Iran is currently financing terrorists and militias in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and backs the murderous regime of Bassar Al Assad in Syria. Its politicians routinely deny Israel’s right to exist.” In his speech at the UN General Assembly – preceded by the historical Rouhani-Cameron meeting – the British Prime Minister cited “severe disagreements” with Iran, including “Iran’s support for terrorist organisations, its nuclear program, and its treatment of its people.”

But the US will try to box Iran not only in the nuclear issue but also in the regional issue. After all, Iran is a regional stakeholder. “A more balanced approach in nuclear and regional issues can open Iran’s doors for a meaningful resolution in Syria and an effective military response to the Islamic State.”, said Geranmayeh. Nuclear talks over the next two weeks can make a difference in the regional dynamics.

Open letter 

Seven prominent Europeans – all Council Members of the European Council on Foreign Relations acting in a personal capacity – have signed an open letter urging the EU 3+3 countries (Germany, France, United Kingdom, China, Russia, United States) and Iran to reach a nuclear deal.  They have called on negotiating parties and their respective leaderships to make the tough compromises needed to seal an agreement this month. The open letter has appeared in prominent newspapers across Europe, including the  The GuardianEl Mundo and Corriere Della Serra, among others.

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