Kerry said that “real and substantial progress” had been made in the last round of talks of Vienna but conceded that it might not be possible to arrive at a “workable agreement.” At the same time, he said, “we would be fools to walk away” from a process that has already yielded significant curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.
On the positive side, Iran will continue to limit its enrichment of uranium to a level below 5 percent, far short of the concentration of the isotope U-235 needed to make a nuclear weapon. It will continue to permit daily inspection of its enrichment facilities, and will hold off on completing a heavy-water reactor at Arak that could potentially produce plutonium, an alternative source of bomb materiel.
As long as Iran abides by the interim accord, “the world is safer than it was a year ago,” said Kerry.
In return for continued compliance, Iran is to receive another $5 billion in oil revenues from about $100 billion still frozen in foreign bank accounts. That is not enough to jumpstart the Iranian economy. However, Iran is expected to try to erode the sanctions regime that has stifled foreign investment and trade in the country for the past few years. While the U.S. and the European Union are likely to maintain discipline, it is less clear whether Russia — itself hit by sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine — and China intend to hold the line.
Republicans in the U.S. Congress are also on record as threatening to pass new sanctions when they take control of the Senate next year. While Obama can veto them, such measures will increase doubts in Tehran about the ability of the current U.S. administration to implement a comprehensive deal.
In Tehran, the failure to clinch a deal will likely undermine Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. While Rouhani told Iranians in a televised interview Monday that his team had scored a “major victory” by upholding Iran’s nuclear rights, there were no pro-government celebrations in the streets of Tehran, just disappointment at the failure to crack the sanctions regime that symbolizes Iran’s pariah status in the international community and chokes off its potential.