A number of states have been in known possession of nuclear weapons since their ballistic appearance onto the world stage in 1945. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of nuclear warheads were inherited by the former satellite nations Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, all of which were either disassembled or transferred to Russia during the 1990s. In that decade too, South Africa earned a thus-far unique accolade of complete self-disarmament, having acquired nuclear strike capability in the 1970s. Remaining in certain possession of the weapons today are India, Pakistan, North Korea and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, but has never officially acknowledged this.
Their German and Iranian counterparts in Austria joined representatives from the permanent Security Council members this November to discuss the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme. Despite Vienna being almost a by-word of international peace agreement, no conclusion was reached in this round of dialogue. Subsequently, it has been announced that the deadline be extended until June 2015.
As far as the United States and other members of the so-called ‘P5+1’ are concerned in Vienna, the central objective is preventing Iran from becoming the newest member of the nuclear club, around which so much international political discourse runs. For Iran, the talks are an opportunity to move towards the lifting of economic sanctions that have loomed overhead since its revolution in 1979, a truly pivotal year for Middle Eastern affairs. Like a number of things, the nuclear programme in Iran in fact received American assistance for over a decade prior to the toppling of the US-backed Shah and his replacement by the Ayatollah rule that continues today. American-led sanctions were compounded in 2006 by the United Nations after Iran’s refusal to slow its progress towards nuclear armament.
The regulated production of low-enriched uranium is perfectly legal under international legislation; it can be put to great use in the energy and medical sectors. While the Iranian government insists that these are its only aims, hard-liners in Tehran intend on increasing the country’s nuclear output twentyfold in the near future, and this drive for production has caused concern, to say the least, amongst Iran’s rivals about progression towards ‘break-out capacity’. That is, the possession of a sufficient amount of highly enriched uranium to construct a weapon.
Being already in full possession of the required finance, infrastructure, human resources and political will to arm itself, Iran has been perceived as threatening in its efforts by many for some time now. The current nuclear talks in question are a real source of optimism, however. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has proved far less toxic to relations with the US than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appearing to be more genial and open than the man who caused walkouts in the United Nations General Assembly with accusations that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration. His comfortable electoral victory proved genuine widespread progressivism within Iran, and his openness is certainly a promising new chapter in US-Iranian relations.
There are important obstacles to an amicable conclusion to the talks too, and events such as these give good insight into the global reach of both American and Iranian domestic politics. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have been negotiating throughout the process on behalf of presidents Obama and Rouhani, himself a former nuclear negotiator. Neither premier has the final say in implementing foreign policy, however, due to the structural barriers in both political machines. Just as Congressional approval will be required of Obama to lift American sanctions, so the consent of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is required of Rouhani before activity in Iran’s nuclear sector can be halted. The Republican Party’s legislative dominance in Congress that will exist as of the New Year is predicted to seriously hinder any liberal treatment of Iran.
On top of the imminent legislative Republican majority established by last month’s midterm elections, American representatives in Vienna will be faced with increasingly loud opposition from the influential pro-Israeli lobby. Groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have great leverage in the American electorate, and any perceived leniency towards Iran in the talks would be taken as failure.
There is no reason why the decision to extend talks will not be repeated next summer, and these complexities and difficulties to the negotiations themselves leave little wonder why the talks are yet inconclusive. Should June 2015 bring a successful end to the process, however, and should that entail the lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Republic, the Middle Eastern regional power balance could potentially rock significantly. Economic sanctions on Iran deprive it of roughly $700,000,000 every month, and reduce the revenue it acquires from its substantial oil exports by around two thirds. Removing such a blockade would not only potentially mean a flood of benefits for the Iranian people, but would certainly worry those in governments nearby.
Leaders in Riyadh and Jerusalem in particular are concerned about this hypothetical outcome. As the dominant regional power, Saudi Arabia would be set to lose substantially with the revival of a great competitor just across the Persian Gulf. As for Israel, relations with Iran have been precarious at best since the latter’s revolution. The Israeli interception in March this year of a shipload of Iranian arms bound for Gaza, and the shooting down of an alleged Israeli drone above an Iranian nuclear facility in August are just two recent examples of sporadic incidents that pepper the tense timeline of relations between the two nations. The attempted arms transfer provided insight into the serious concern in Israel that a revived Iran would be further capable of worsening their struggle with Hezbollah. The alternative, however, of permitting the approach of break-out capacity in Iran, is perhaps more critical.
“Keep in mind,” Obama warned ABC News, “even if we solve the nuclear problem we still have the problem of Iran sponsoring terrorist activities in the region, we still have problems in terms of their attitude towards friends like Israel.” Near-identical statements by Iranian officials would come as little surprise. “What a deal would do,” Obama continued, “is take a big piece of business off the table and perhaps begin a long process in which the relationship… begins to change.”