STATE DEPARTMENT— As the March 24 deadline nears for Iran nuclear negotiators to agree on the fundamental structure of a final deal, both the U.S. and Iran increasingly have been vocal in saying they do not favor another overall extension in negotiations.
There is debate, however, over whether the U.S. and Iran are actually taking more hard-line positions over the final July deadline or if they are trying to use their public assertions to pressure the other side.
As world powers involved in the Iran nuclear talks work to secure a deal that addresses Western concerns about Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, and Iran’s desires for sanctions relief, both the U.S. and Iran are saying they do not favor talks beyond July 1.
President Barack Obama made that point clear during an appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this week.
“At this juncture, I don't see a further extension being useful if they have not agreed to the basic formulation and the bottom line that the world requires to have confidence that they're not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” said Obama.
At a security conference in Germany this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went further, saying even if there is no agreement at all, he did not believe it would be, as he put it, the “end of the world.”
“I do not believe another extension is in the interests of anybody, as I did not believe this extension was either necessary or useful,” said Zarif.
Strategic or actual?
But these hardline stances could be more about strategy, according to nuclear policy analyst James Acton, who works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is largely a negotiating tactic. I think that each side is trying to put pressure on the other side to make an agreement.”
But Acton said the strategy has its flaws. “The problem with this strategy is it is very hard to make this threat credible,” he said.
Non-proliferation specialist Kelsey Davenport said both the U.S. and Iran want a deal within this second extension because of mounting domestic pressures.
“In the United States, there is this idea that Iran is just buying for time, that they are not serious about a deal, that they may be covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. So, I think both sides realize that they need to cinch this deal before the hardliners gain momentum.”
One of the sticking points in the talks has been uranium-enrichment levels. Western negotiators want a deal that assures them that Iran cannot use its nuclear facilities to develop weapons.
As they seek a resolution on this issue, Iran has become increasingly vocal in its calls for immediate relief from sanctions ... if there is a deal.
Both sides stand to lose “tremendously” if these negotiations fall apart, said Acton.
“Iran loses because it will lose sanctions relief and there is a risk of military action, and the P5 + 1 [five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany] loses if negotiations fall apart because all of the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program will evaporate.”
A diplomatic solution will not be perfect, said Acton, but could be what he calls the “least bad solution” available.