Deadlock Reigns in Nuclear Talks

October 21, 2014

Publication Type: 

  • Policy Briefs


Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin

Yet another round of nuclear talks with Iran ended last week, with the parties in deadlock on essential points.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent six hours in talks in Vienna on October 15, where he met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.  On Thursday, the talks continued without Kerry.  The result was nil.

The United States remains intent on reaching a deal by the November 24 deadline.  In a briefing on October 15, a senior State Department official said that “there is enough time to get this done,” and that the parties “are making progress incrementally.”  When pressed, the official explained that “gaps have narrowed,” on all issues, though in some cases the narrowing is “tiny.”  For instance, there are still “significant gaps” between the parties with regard to uranium enrichment, according to the official.

Other parties to the talks expressed more flexibility about the negotiating deadline.  In a press conference in Paris on October 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there was no “guarantee” that a deal would be reached by November 24, and that this was not a “sacred date.”  Speaking about the timing for a “nuclear settlement” a day earlier, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that both sides had “reached consensus on generalities” and that an extension may be needed to work out the “fine details.”  

One of these details is the mechanism for sanctions relief, and speed at which it will be delivered.  According to an October 20 story in the New York Times, the U.S. Treasury Department prepared a report showing that the administration would be able to suspend most of the sanctions without seeking a vote from Congress, but that permanently lifting the sanctions would require Congressional approval.  New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez warned in the Times that, “if a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond.” 

In addition to the stalemate in the talks, which are a principal pillar of President Rouhani’s foreign policy, a new, possibly greater threat has emerged: plunging oil prices.  World markets are down 20% since June.  Less oil revenue adds to the strain President Rouhani’s budget is already under from Western sanctions.  If prices continue to drop, and sanctions are not eased, Iran’s population is in line to feel the pinch.  That, in turn, can only increase the pressure on Iran to reduce sanctions by making a deal. 

While Vienna was the scene of frustrated diplomacy, London was the venue of an entirely different sort of gathering.  At a conference dubbed the “1st Europe-Iran Forum” leading Western companies heard about making money in Iran under relaxed sanctions, which the event’s website described as “a momentous commercial opportunity.”  Panels at the conference were aimed at providing insight into “which sanctions are being lifted, and which remain active,” as well as how a final nuclear deal would impact “trade and investment relations between Europe and Iran.”  The website listed former foreign ministers of Britain and France (one from each) as speakers, Iranian and European business leaders, and policy experts from respected European think tanks.