Hopes of an agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme were high, but it is little surprise that they have not been met. The immense difficulties facing the negotiations in Geneva faded into the background amid talk of a “historic deal” and an imminent end to decades of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding. Yet when discussions concluded at the weekend without a deal, the attempt was swiftly branded a failure.
There was, and remains, some cause for optimism. Since Hassan Rouhani took over the Iranian presidency from the bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, the rhetoric from Tehran has markedly softened. And with international sanctions biting hard on ordinary Iranians – inflation is running at 40 per cent, the economy has shrunk by more than 5 per cent, and the number of families below the poverty line has doubled to four in 10 – domestic pressure for a deal cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, for the international community, Israel’s threats of air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, not to mention the Islamic Republic’s pivotal position in an ever more unstable region, have also been focusing minds.
But both sides wanting to talk was never going to make reaching a mutually satisfactory conclusion any easier. Sure enough, even the personal participation of the US Secretary of State, who arrived in Switzerland on Friday, was not enough to reach a deal. What were always the two primary sticking points remain so. One is the question about the future of the heavy-water reactor being built at Arak. The other is what to do with Iran’s existing stockpile of highly enriched uranium. Tehran is determined to retain “rights to enrichment”; the international community, not unreasonably, remains sceptical.
Stalemate? Not quite. Just as those predicting immediate success were unduly hasty, so are those now calling defeat. John Kerry’s eight hours at the negotiating table are the longest high-level talks between the US and Iran since 1979 – no small achievement in itself. Equally, the Secretary of State’s assertion that “we are closer now than when we came” cannot simply be dismissed. With negotiations to restart in 10 days’ time – albeit between diplomats rather than foreign ministers – the process is far from over.
Now is a dangerous time. Barack Obama’s critics in Congress – fuelled by Israel’s inflammatory opposition to a deal – are already pushing for more sanctions. In Iran, the frustration of public demands for relief may undermine support for discussions that many feel infringe on national sovereignty. Apparent divisions in the international community, exemplified by France’s outspoken warnings about a “fool’s game” before the talks were concluded, will not help either.
Yet there is no constructive alternative to perseverance. Neither will a deal be struck without concessions from both sides. The notion of the Islamic Republic continuing with some degree of uranium enrichment may not be palatable; but it is allowed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and – in return for close controls and even closer oversight – it is a better option than either accepting an Iran with nuclear weapons or trying to bomb them out of existence.
The price is high; but so is the value of the prize. A deal is not only the only way to patch up one of the world’s most dangerous and intractable disputes. An accord between Iran and the West could also be key to any number of the issues bedevilling the Middle East, not least the conflict in Syria. It was never going to be easy. But it has not failed yet.