Middle East

Iran nuclear negotiations go into extra time

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Media captionBethany Bell reports from Vienna: "The big sticking points have been clear for a very long time"

Iran and six world powers are to resume negotiations on long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear issue in New York. However, it is looking increasingly unlikely that they will meet the November deadline for a deal.

It looks like a football match where both sides have scored a goal but have now gone into extra time.

The clock is ticking, the game is tense and the players are tackling each other from every side. It may have to go to a penalty shootout.

Last September, when Iran's President Hassan Rouhani was on his way to New York's John F Kennedy airport after attending the UN General Assembly's opening session, US President Barack Obama telephoned him.

Their brief conversation broke a 30-year old taboo - Iranian and American diplomats have since been in direct contact trying to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Changing tactics

Next week, Mr Rouhani will be returning to New York.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption In January, Iranian scientists halted all enrichment of uranium to 20% concentration

Despite several rounds of talks, the fate of a long-term nuclear accord is still in question.

By the time Iran's president arrives in the US, his foreign minister and negotiators from the P5+1 - the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany - will already have started a fresh round of meetings.

"This is the most determining meeting of all," says Ali Vaez, International Crisis Group's senior Iran analyst. "The real question is: are they going to keep forcing their positions, or are they going in with new ideas?"

Mr Vaez sees some positive changes.

"This time, the Iranians and Americans met before the main talks [last week in Geneva], not after their positions had been hardened in a stalemate around the negotiating table."

And in New York, all the foreign ministers involved in the nuclear talks will be present because of this year's opening session of the UN General Assembly.

Stumbling block

The last time all six foreign ministers were in one room - in Geneva last November - they agreed an interim deal that froze or capped key elements of Iran's nuclear programme in return for limited relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Iran says it will need to expand enrichment current capacity 10-fold or more by 2021

That opened the door for a further six rounds of talks in Vienna between January and July aimed at reaching a "comprehensive agreement" that made those concessions deeper, wider and permanent.

However, the Vienna talks did not lead to a breakthrough. The negotiations have been extended until 24 November, but major differences remain between the two sides.

The world powers want Iran to cut its uranium enrichment capacity to almost one third of what it currently has.

Iran wants to increase it by 10-fold so that it can produce fuel on an industrial scale for the Bushehr nuclear power plant when a Russian supply agreement expires in 2021.

Iran wants all sanctions lifted as soon as there is a deal. But Western powers want sanctions-relief to be phased over many years.

Blame-game

It is because of such wide gaps that most analysts remain pessimistic about a comprehensive deal.

"The chances of a deal by 24 November are very low," says Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The IAEA says Iran has yet to answer questions on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear programme

He points to the latest hurdle in the process - Tehran's recent refusal to give the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), answers about possible military dimensions of its nuclear programme.

"I assume that [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif and Rouhani were overruled by the hardliners," Mr Fitzpatrick says.

However, other observers say the problems the IAEA has encountered could be Tehran's response to Washington's decision last month to add more than 25 Iranian individuals and entities to the US treasury's sanctions blacklist.

The interim agreement put a freeze on new sanctions, but allowed the US to enforce existing ones, penalising those who bypass them.

Tough reactions from Tehran have led some to believe that with the prospect of a deal now dimming a blame-game has already started.

Russian transfer

There are signs that hardliners in Iran may feel confident enough to think the need for a deal with the West is no longer a priority.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Domestic political constraints are said to be limiting the chance of compromise on enrichment

Since President Rouhani took office, the Iranian economy has stabilised. The rial has gained against the dollar, inflation is going down and growth may pick up soon.

But the economy is improving partly because of Mr Rouhani's policies and partly because some sanctions were suspended during the nuclear talks. The latter could reverse fast in case of no long-term deal being agreed.

At the same time, the West's standoff with Russia over Ukraine is pushing Moscow closer to Tehran.

It came as no surprise that a large Russian delegation arrived in Tehran this week, signing initial agreements on projects worth $90bn (£56bn).

Whether any of those projects become reality is a different question, but more sanctions on Russia could bring Moscow and Tehran closer to each other.

Strong opposition

The other new element is the crisis in Iraq and the advance of Islamic State.

Conservatives in Tehran are asking why Iran should make so many concessions to the US, at a time when Washington is facing so many problems in the region.

This is an argument championed by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, who have been at odds with the moderate President Rouhani.

Against such a backdrop, many observers believe that a final deal on Iran's nuclear programme in the next two months may now be unlikely.

"Luckily, the alternative to a comprehensive deal is not necessarily a collapse of diplomacy," says Mr Fitzpatrick. "The more likely alternative is another interim deal, probably with new terms."

In case the talks fail, for the US and Iranian presidents preserving the status quo may be the best option, but whether their opponents on both sides would be equally happy is another question.

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