Championing Sanctions: the Iran-West Negotiations

In the autumn of 2013 I sat down in a museum café in London with an Israeli official to discuss a report I was working on for my then employers. This was at a critical moment of international diplomacy; Iran and the West were negotiating for the removal of sanctions, in return for Iranian concessions on their nuclear policy. Inevitably our conversation flowed to the negotiations, and our significant differences on Iran.

I subscribe to the belief that if the international community chooses to implement sanctions on a nation then they must follow through to the end. Thus when the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated a, supposedly sincere, desire to negotiate, it should have been a cause for celebration. Sanctions had worked! And indeed in late 2013 a temporary deal was struck that was agreeable to both sides. Iran would stop work on the Arak heavy water reactor, the construction of which was indicative of a desire to have highly enriched uranium, they would also halt uranium enrichment above 5% and would begin to neutralize their previously enriched uranium that was above the 5% marker. To quickly explain these enrichment markers – uranium enriched to 5% is used for energy, between 5-15% can be used for research, anything above points to weapons. In return for this, the West would provide immediate sanction relief in the form of £2.6bn, whilst also suspending sanctions targeting Iran’s petrochemical exports and on exports of precious metals. In addition, no new sanctions would be made against Iran – unless they broke the terms of the deal.

The deal was much more complex than I am making it sound; I have simply boiled it down to the most critical of agreements. Whilst the deal was historic, it was met with a level criticism in both the West and Middle East. Israel, as expected, does not believe that Iran will stop enrichment, and has repeatedly stated in the media that the West has made a legendary blunder. Conservatives in the US and UK have also made reservations about the wisdom of halting sanctions without a stronger deal.

The ongoing negotiations at Vienna could possibly be the make or break moment for Iran-West relations, accords must be made to either extend the deal, or develop a new more comprehensive agreement. Yet, complications have arisen; concerns have been raised by Iran’s alleged production of exploding bridgewire detonators, a component used for nuclear weapons. If true, it would be strongly indicative that Iran has not been sincere in their negotiations, which would be a massive disappointment for those of us who have advocated in favour of continued discourse with the isolated nation.

When it comes to negotiation, each side has their own red line, their own bottom line. They don’t want the other side to know their bottom line as this weakens their own bargaining power – for example if I am trying to sell my Blu-Ray player I wouldn’t tell prospective buyers that £20 is the minimum I would accept, I would be ambitious and say £40 was my minimum. At the most basic level, this is what is going on in Vienna – the diplomats in attendance will have some form of indication of the minimum deal they can accept, but will use every second up until the July 20 deadline to try and get more than the minimum.

Beyond these negotiations tactics are the 3rd parties intent on protecting their interests in the region. Israel has every right to get involved, surrounded by antagonistic nations it is natural for Israel to be concerned. Not only are State governments involved, but elements within these nations, for example the far right in the US and the conservative groups in Iran are pressuring their respective governments for harsher terms. Support within Iran for these negotiations is temperamental; it is possible that if a new deal is not struck by July, then President Rouhani will lose his mandate to continue these discussions. Many observers were shocked to hear that the Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had given the President his support – support that may be withdrawn if progress is not made. The most common observation that has emerged from Iranian diplomats is that the West’s nuclear hopes are too high, they are too ambitious in their plans.

I believe that sanctions have, on this occasion, done what they were designed for. They have created a window in which two enemies can be brought to the table, issues aired, and a solution found. So, when politicians in the USA make hyperbolic statements to appease some of their financial backers, statements that endanger negotiations, all I can feel is shame. I can understand that sentiment in Iran may oppose discourse with the West after the damage sanctions have inflicted; I am less sympathetic to Westerners who are attempting to torpedo the Vienna talks. Nevertheless, diplomats have just under two months to either create a comprehensive deal, or extend the current deal to allow for more time to create a satisfying agreement.