As negotiations in Vienna have ended, delegates from Iran and the E3+3 have settled on an extension of their talks in the absence of a comprehensive agreement. Both sides were still separated by several outstanding issues, including the scope of Iran’s enrichment capacity, the nature of sanctions relief, and the timeline of the deal. Addressing these technical matters, negotiators have so far carefully avoided linking the nuclear negotiations with broader geopolitical questions. This, at least, is the impression from several discussions with insiders at the sidelines of the Vienna talks.
Before returning to the Austrian capital this November, the negotiating sides have come a long way. In order to reach some middle ground, especially Tehran and Washington had to overcome a decades-long legacy of mutual hostility. A first breakthrough in this regard was in November last year, when in Geneva Iran and the E3+3 concluded an interim agreement, the “Joint Plan of Action”. Over a period of six to twelve months, during which negotiations were to be continued, the agreement foresaw a limited reduction of Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for a partial and temporary lifting of sanctions. It was the first official accord between Iran and the United States after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In the meantime, as both sides have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to the talks, developments have gained momentum. The rise of the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria presented Tehran and Washington with an immediate common threat. Moreover, both sides take interest in Afghanistan’s stability and, at an abstract level, in containing Russia’s influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Unthinkable not long ago, Tehran and Washington now occasionally speak of common interests in the region. Off the record, Iranian officials have even gone as far as to applaud the “fruitful co-operation” with the United States in places like Afghanistan or Iraq.
Against this backdrop, it is interesting to observe that both sides have carefully avoided addressing the broader geopolitical situation in the Vienna talks. Representatives from Iran and the E3+3 stress that the talks were solely limited to the nuclear file.
This is particularly remarkable as the nuclear issue presents itself as a function of the broader political relations between, mainly, Iran and the United States. Under U.S.-friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran had begun its nuclear program in the 1970s. At the time, Tehran enjoyed the support of Western companies and governments – despite an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which aimed to establish Iran as the number one regional power in the Middle East. It was only after the revolution, along with the deterioration of U.S.-Iranian relations, that Iran’s nuclear program and its potential military dimension became a concern for Washington and its European allies.
Hence, it seems the nuclear issue could be best overcome as part of a general rapprochement between Iran and the United States. From a realpolitik perspective, at a minimum level, the various shared interests provide substantial ground for testing the potential for a realignment of the international politics of the Middle East.
The hands of presidents Barak Obama and Hassan Rohani, however, are tied. Domestic politics both in Iran and the United States undercut broader strategic moves. In a strikingly similar fashion, hardliners in Tehran and Washington oppose any wider opening beyond the settling of the very immediate nuclear crisis. In their view, the other side, respectively, continues to represent an eternal nemesis. Washington is moreover facing pressure from its traditional allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who fear to be sidelined by a U.S.-Iranian grand bargain.
Thus, instead of testing the ground for broader engagement, foreign ministers John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif are forced to design a deal enjoying domestic support not only at present but even after a potential change of government in the future. Trapped by these domestic constraints, the parties seek to solve the conflict issues of their relations while being forced to disregard the larger strategic picture.
This comes down to being an attempt of solving a crisis without addressing its core: the question of a Middle Eastern security framework acceptable to both Iran and the United States. In the meantime, shared interests, let alone strategic rapprochement, remain the elephant in the room, which all sides know too well but do not dare to speak of – yet.
David Jalilvand is a research fellow at the Berlin Centre of Caspian Region Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin – focusing on energy and international politics. He has been in Vienna during the final E3+3 negotiations in November 2014.