When negotiators from Iran and the EU3+3 (France, UK, Germany plus the US, Russia and China) reached an interim agreement in November 2013 restricting Iran's nuclear programme, they set themselves a one-year deadline for sealing a comprehensive, long-term agreement. That deadline expires on November 24th. Now Western governments have to decide whether negotiators should stick with the deadline or extend the talks. They should choose the latter; the current geopolitical context does not favour the West and, in time, low oil prices could force Iran to compromise.
On the face of it, a deal should be within reach. The main point of disagreement is the number of centrifuges – tools for enriching uranium – Iran should be permitted to have. The more it has, the faster it can enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said he wants to ensure Tehran cannot build a bomb in less than one year. So far the Iranian government has built 19,000 centrifuges and says it intends to build at least twice as many. But the US and others want to reduce the number to the low thousands.
Under the November 2013 interim deal, Tehran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, dilute some of its higher enriched uranium stock and halt work at three nuclear sites. It also agreed to allow increased monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog. In return, the US and the EU, which had restricted Iran’s ability to sell oil and natural gas through a tough sanctions regime, released several billion dollars in Iranian oil proceeds and allowed access to specific goods, including medicine and aircraft spare parts.
The ‘prize’ of a successful negotiation is containing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. A comprehensive agreement would bring a dose of badly needed good news to the volatile region, and make a US or Israeli military strike unlikely. A deal would show that multilateral diplomacy involving the West and Russia can solve thorny international issues even when relations are tense because of the Ukraine crisis.
Even a comprehensive deal would not make Iran a friend of the West. But it would reduce the level of animosity and offer the prospect of a pragmatic détente. There are a number of regional issues which would benefit from greater co-operation, such as the conflict in Syria, Iraq and the threat from the terrorist group ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), and the stability of Afghanistan. A deal would also help to revive Iran’s economy, for example by attracting investment into Iran’s energy sector.
Under a comprehensive deal the West may have to tacitly accept that Iran has the technical potential to develop a nuclear weapon. But Iran’s leaders would need to dismantle or roll back parts of the country’s nuclear programme, allow invasive inspections, make credible offers of transparency and accept that sanctions could be reinstated anytime. As economic and geopolitical realities influence the negotiations, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader – and his president, Hassan Rouhani – may not see the need to compromise enough to achieve a deal.
The US and Europe are using economic sanctions, particularly against Iran’s financial and energy sectors, to extract concessions at the negotiating table. Iran’s economy has suffered as a result: according to the US State Department, it is 25 per cent smaller than it would have been if it had continued to grow at its pre-sanctions rate. The economy has been in recession, Iran cannot market most of its vast energy resources and foreign reserves worth more than $100 billion (€80 billion) are out of Tehran’s reach, mostly locked in Asian banks.
However, Iran has had some success in circumventing the sanctions. According to the Central Bank of Iran, the first quarter’s growth rate was 4.6 per cent over the same quarter in 2013. Unemployment has dropped, and inflation has come down from 45 per cent to 27 per cent. The bank argues that the Iranian economy may recover, even under sanctions. If President Rouhani can deliver growth through negotiated sanctions relief and sanctions busting, he will have less interest in compromising during the nuclear talks.
In 2014, Iran’s national oil company exploited a loophole in the sanctions regime; exports of natural gas condensates – a very light oil – are only partially restricted. The interim agreement caps Iranian crude oil exports at 1 million barrels per day. But according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2014 Iran exceeded the export cap by nearly 400,000 barrels per day ‒ mostly in the form of condensates ‒ adding $3.3 billion to the Iranian treasury.
Iran is also trying to attract the interest of foreign investors. In October, President Rouhani publicly endorsed a business roundtable in London that discussed post-sanctions economic opportunities. Tehran is luring international energy companies to return by offering them more profitable conditions, even though sanctions would only be lifted after a comprehensive deal was reached.
At the same time, cracks are appearing in Europe’s sanctions edifice. A ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on September 18th, citing procedural mistakes, annulled some of the EU’s restrictive measures against the Central Bank of Iran. On October 7th, another ECJ ruling in favour of Iran’s national tanker company allowed its assets to be unfrozen. While the EU responded by putting the company back on its sanctions list, these rulings suggest more of the sanctions package could be legally unpicked.
Iran may also be decreasingly willing to compromise for geopolitical reasons. US-led efforts to target ISIL are strengthening Iran’s regional influence. ISIL is an adversary of Iran’s allies in Damascus and Baghdad, and the group has targeted Shia communities and their holy sites in Iraq. In response, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps helped prevent the fall of Irbil in August and is training Shia militias. Meanwhile Iran continues to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and offer him military backing through its Lebanese proxy group, Hizbollah.
A rapprochement between the US and Iran seemed possible in the run-up to US airstrikes on ISIL in late August. But Iranian officials have tied co-operation against ISIL to American leniency on Iranian centrifuges. The United States has made the opposite linkage: President Obama reportedly told Ayatollah Khamenei that co-operation against ISIL depended on Iranian nuclear concessions. But Iran has more influence on the ground in Iraq and Syria than the US does, and Obama is under domestic political pressure to deliver results against ISIL, strengthening Iran’s hand in the talks.
The Ukraine crisis could also help Iran’s negotiating position. Western negotiators say that Moscow is not letting the conflict in Ukraine contaminate the talks. But Russian attempts to frustrate Western diplomacy have emerged. In the energy domain, Iran and Russia are competitors. Yet Tehran is flirting with Moscow, hoping to agree on an oil-for-goods swap, which would see Russia importing 500,000 barrels per day from Iran and sending Russian manufacturing and drilling equipment in return. If relations between the West and Russia become more strained, this arrangement could go ahead, undermining the sanctions regime and Iran’s incentive to make a deal.
The oil price is another reason why Russia may not want a deal now and could be advising Iran to hold out. Any nuclear agreement will raise the prospect of more Iranian oil exports, putting downward pressure on the oil price. This would further harm a Russian economy dependent on oil exports and hit by Western sanctions over Ukraine. (The oil-for-goods swap would make sense to Moscow as the agreement would keep Iranian oil off the international market, while Russia would pay in kind, leaving spot oil prices undisturbed).
Although a compromise may be out of reach at present, neither the West nor Iran has an interest in talks breaking down. The Obama administration has invested significant political capital in a deal and sees it as a possible foreign policy legacy. For the majority-Republican US Congress, however, failed negotiations would confirm that the administration's diplomacy needs to be replaced by a more muscular policy of harsher sanctions. A reluctant Obama would face new pressure to put a military option back on the table.
Collapsed negotiations and a tougher US approach would cause splits in the EU3+3. Russia and China would consider bilateral trade and energy deals with Iran, and European companies would push their leaders to take a softer stance on sanctions. The sanctions regime could unravel.
America’s regional allies have been sceptical about the interim agreement from the start. If diplomacy failed and Iran resumed work on its nuclear programme, Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular would take counter-measures. These might range from lobbying Washington to take military action, to (in the case of Israel) launching unilateral military strikes or (in the case of Saudi Arabia) pursuing a nuclear option itself.
For Iran, the collapse of negotiations would put pressure on President Rouhani from hardliners to accelerate a weapons programme. On the economic front, the re-imposition of sanctions, or further measures, would be painful. Politically, Rouhani would have to gamble either that international solidarity would crumble, or that America’s next president would be as willing as Obama to try to do a deal, while facing opposition from Congress and US allies in the Middle East.
So if, as seems likely, the November 24th deadline cannot be met, the interim agreement and the talks should be extended. Initially, this is in the interest of all parties. The Iranians would get the continued benefit of some sanctions relief without having made major concessions, and need not fear a military threat. The Americans and the Europeans would steer away from yet another Middle Eastern conflict and a deal would still be within reach. And Russia could continue to build its commercial ties to Iran, without risking nuclear proliferation along its southern borders.
Looking ahead, an extension should favour the EU3+3. Due to the serendipitous ‘fracking’ revolution, America’s geopolitical clout is growing. US oil is flooding the market (and Saudi Arabia too is keeping the spigot open). In combination with slowing Chinese demand for energy, oil prices are now at their lowest point in four years. The IEA expects growth in oil demand to slow in 2015 and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has adjusted its growth forecast for China downward. It suggests oil prices will remain down. The oil price at which Iran’s budget is balanced lies between $120 and $130, while the current market price is roughly $75-80. Iran’s economic recovery could be short-lived as low oil prices hurt its bottom line and offset likely gains from sanctions busting. Even a Russian-Iranian oil-for-goods deal would not be sufficient to keep its economy afloat. President Rouhani recently hinted at Iran’s vulnerability to the price slump. The longer it lasts, the more pain it will cause to Iran’s economy. An extension of six more months would allow the oil price to do its work on Iran’s willingness to compromise in the nuclear talks.
A sceptical US Congress could still try to derail an extension by imposing new sanctions on Iran. A two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House is required to block a presidential veto. The House is strongly opposed to the talks, but Obama should be able to convince enough senators to back an extension.
By designating Catherine Ashton as the EU’s mediator on Iran, after her term as High Representative expired, the EU has signalled it could live with an extension. But the EU and its member-states should ensure that the loopholes in the sanctions regime – for instance on natural gas condensates – are closed, that EU lawyers successfully defend the sanctions regime at the ECJ, and that European companies that circumvent sanctions are fined – something which until now Europe has left to prosecutors in the US.
A deal might still be struck this month, but the odds are that it will not. In that case, Americans and Europeans should use their economic leverage to get a better agreement later.
Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.