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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Expected deal between Iran and P5+1 still faces challenges

A historic agreement is close, but there are still issues to be worked out, writes Taimur Khan.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif talks to journalists as he stands on the balcony of the Coburg hotel, the venue for nuclear talks, in Vienna on July 13. Reuters
Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif talks to journalists as he stands on the balcony of the Coburg hotel, the venue for nuclear talks, in Vienna on July 13. Reuters

NEW YORK // Differences over sanctions relief and the scope of inspections at suspected nuclear sites delayed the expected end of the Iran nuclear talks on Monday.

Negotiations were likely to break the latest deadline, scheduled for midnight Vienna-time on Monday, the fourth such extension in about two weeks.

Negotiators from both the six world powers and Iran had on Sunday strongly suggested that an announcement of a successful agreement would finally be made on Monday, capping 17 straight days of negotiations, the latest round of which has been led by the US secretary of state and his Iranian counterpart.

The end of the year-and-a-half-long negotiations was tantalisingly close, with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani even posting a tweet hailing the “victory” late on Monday — only to delete it soon after.

Instead, Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told reporters from his room’s balcony at the historic Coburg hotel in Vienna where the talks are taking place that a final deal being reached by Tuesday “is possible”.

John Kerry met with Mr Zarif for around an hour on Monday afternoon, after meeting with foreign ministers from all of the other countries known as the P5+1 who are negotiating with Iran — France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China.

The ministers who only a day before had hinted at the talks’ conclusion, were quiet, wearing taciturn expressions and refused to answer questions from reporters about whether or not there would be yet another deadline extension.

There appeared to be at least three sticking points hampering a final agreement, which is aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions that have crippled its economy.

The first issue is the Iranian demand, reportedly backed by Russia and China, that the United Nations Security Council embargo on its ballistic missile programme be fully and immediately lifted. The ban is part of the nuclear-related sanctions regime imposed since 2006.

Russia has deals in place to sell Iran missile systems and its negotiators have backed Tehran on this point.

Western powers involved in the talks have reportedly insisted that the embargo remain in place, at least in the near term. The US and its allies in the Arabian Gulf fear that Tehran will use the tens of billions of dollars unlocked with the lifting of economic sanctions to rebuild its outdated conventional forces, bolster its vast ballistic missile programme, and increase funding to allied state and non-state groups across the Middle East.

Another issue that has tripped up the final accord is the P5+1 demand that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are given full access to nuclear sites, including military ones, suspected of housing nuclear weapons research facilities. Iran denies that it has conducted weapons research and negotiators reportedly maintain that military facilities and nuclear scientists should be out of bounds.

Iranian negotiators are also reportedly demanding that the Security Council resolution required to back the deal and lift the UN sanctions does not include language describing Tehran’s nuclear programme as illegal, according to the Associated Press.

The pace and sequence of sanctions relief and the unfreezing of Iranian assets has also apparently not been settled.

Despite the signs of optimism over the weekend, there was no indication on Monday that either US or Iranian officials were willing to compromise on these key issues.

When asked if the US would agree to the end of the arms embargo on Iran, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington that the only sanctions under consideration relate to Tehran’s nuclear programme. He did not specify if he was referring to the UN weapons sanctions, which are tied to the nuclear programme, or separate US sanctions. “They have made genuine progress... but there continues to be some sticking points that remain unresolved,” Mr Earnest said.

More mundane challenges are also prolonging the negotiations, according to diplomats. The latest draft agreement is around 100 pages long and includes a number of highly technical annexes, all of which must be translated into Farsi and checked by both sides to make sure the translations match exactly. Then the final draft must be given a green light by both the White House and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.

The breaching of the July 9 deadline also ensured that a US congress with deep reservations over the deal will be given two months to debate the accord and do its best to publicly undermine it.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae