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Sanctions, politics complicate Iran nuclear deal

Analysis: As a deadline looms, failure is likely to see the domestic climate for a deal worsen on both sides

An Iran nuclear deal remained elusive Tuesday after two days of talks in Oman between Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Negotiators have only 13 days to meet a self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline for reaching agreement, with the U.S. midterm election results potentially raising new obstacles on the path of compromise.

Despite Tehran’s routinely dismissing President Barack Obama’s argument that sanctions pressure has forced Iran to the negotiating table, the timetable for and extent of sanctions relief has emerged as a key sticking point in the talks, according to Iranian officials and others who follow the negotiations closely.

Iran seeks the early removal of U.N. Security Council penalties that undergird the harsh economic punishment imposed by much of the world against the Islamic Republic since 2006. The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) want to phase in relief and tie it to Iranian implementation of an agreement including steps to resolve nagging questions about past Iranian nuclear research with possible military dimensions.

The priority Iran is placing on lifting U.N. sanctions reflects its desire to escape pariah status. Iran wants its nuclear file returned to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, with the goal of eventually being treated like any other signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“As you know, everything is interconnected,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran expert with the International Crisis Group. “The Iranians are willing to go below their operating [uranium enrichment] capacity only if they could justify this painful concession with a potent political win on sanctions relief.”

The problem, he added, is that Iran is unwilling to trade major nuclear concessions for suspension or waiver of sanctions. “Over time, as it simultaneously grew and ossified, the sanctions regime has become a less than optimal tool to advance negotiations in a diplomatic process where a scalpel rather than a chainsaw is required,” he said.

U.S. officials have been careful to avoid predicting success in the talks, which are scheduled to reconvene in Vienna next week for a final push. Kerry told reporters at a photo opportunity on Monday, “We are working hard.” Zarif, asked whether they were making progress, said, “We will, eventually.”

Since talks gained momentum last year after the election of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, the P5+1 has shown remarkable unity, with Russia playing a constructive role in suggesting technical fixes despite its diplomatic rupture with the U.S. over the Ukraine crisis. It has been widely reported, for example, that Moscow has agreed to take stockpiles of Iranian low-enriched uranium and turn it into fuel rods for civilian reactors that Russia hopes to build. Exporting low-enriched uranium for conversion into reactor fuel would permit the Iranians to retain more of the 10,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges they currently operate — which have been a central point of contention in the talks — while still meeting the P5+1’s goal of extending the breakout period required for Iran to amass sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Iranian and U.S. officials have stressed that both sides want to achieve at least the general parameters of an agreement by Nov. 24, the anniversary of last year’s interim nuclear accord. They share a recognition that the political environments in Washington and Tehran are likely to become less favorable if the interim deal —already extended once in July — has to be renewed again.

In Iran political opponents have sought to discredit Rouhani and Zarif by suggesting they have been too quick to offer concessions. Iran’s security establishment, which answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather than to Rouhani, has soured the atmosphere for talks by continuing to repress freedom of expression and to detain dual nationals, such as journalist Jason Rezaian, who covered the nuclear talks and Iran in general for The Washington Post.

In the U.S. opponents of an Iran deal are buoyed by the prospect of Republicans’ taking control of the Senate in January.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is expected to become chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, told a conference of a new pro-Israel advocacy group on Saturday that he would “kill” any Iranian nuclear agreement he deemed a “bad deal.” Israel and its supporters on Capitol Hill have signaled strong opposition to compromise on the question of uranium enrichment in Iran. Graham is expected later this week to introduce a bill that would subject any Iran nuclear agreement to congressional review. A bipartisan bill imposing more sanctions on Iran if no nuclear deal is reached soon is likely to be reintroduced in the next congressional term.  

Despite the hawkish signals from Congress, Iranian officials insist that they accept the Obama administration’s assurances that the White House has sufficient authority to waive key sanctions, at least in the short term, and say that how the U.S. implements a deal is its own business. But one Iranian negotiator, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed the concern to Al Jazeera last week that the U.S. midterm election results would hamper “the ability of the U.S. team to negotiate seriously now.”

Other stakeholders, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are watching the negotiations with evident concern. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and intelligence chief, told a small Washington gathering on Monday at the Brookings Institution that his country would demand the same “advantages” Iran accrues from a nuclear deal.

“We have this huge atomic energy program we are putting in place,” he said. “Should Iran get any advantage, all these options we have in front of us, we will look at them and choose what is best for us.” That includes, he said, obtaining the technology to enrich uranium on Saudi soil.

In an interesting coincidence, “Rosewater,” a new movie about Iran, written and directed by late-night comedy host Jon Stewart, could affect public opinion about a possible Iran deal by reminding Americans of the repressive nature of the regime in Tehran. Stewart, appearing at a screening on Sunday, said that the film’s depiction of the imprisonment of former Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari in 2009 was a universal tale about “the cat-and-mouse game between authoritarian impulse and [free] expression that has gone on forever.” But, he conceded, “for those that don’t want a [nuclear] deal, they will use anything to sabotage it on both sides.”

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