ANALYSIS: Why the delay to the Iran deal weakens the West

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, November 28, 2014

What can a few more months of negotiations achieve that 11 years, including the last 12 months of marathon talks, could not have done already?

It is a question that the leaders of the six world powers engaged in a decade-long standoff with Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme most likely chose not to address as their deadline of November 24, 2014 drew to a close.

In the end, they preferred to extend talks into the spring of 2015 in the hope of reaching a framework agreement that can then morph, by July 2015, into a comprehensive deal.

Whether they can reach that goal remains to be seen. A year of negotiations under the framework of the interim agreement signed in November 2013 has led to little or no concessions by Iran on the fundamentals of its nuclear weapons programme and it has forced the six world powers to blur their own red lines just to keep the talks from collapsing.

The world powers will no doubt protest that it just isn't so. But it is hard to believe them at this point. Behind the fa├žade of optimism, one thing is clear. Those sticking points that constituted stumbling blocks in the past remain. Iran, despite six UN Security Council resolutions intimating a suspension of enrichment activities, can continue to enrich and will, in the future, have a right to enrich recognised.

It is also clear that Iran has hardly budged from its red lines. It will ultimately be able to retain an industrial-sized enrichment programme, including, potentially, a pathway to plutonium production. The clandestine military activities it conducted in the past will neither be addressed nor clarified. Iran's missile programme will be left unrestrained. Finally, any restriction on its future nuclear activities will likely be lifted by the end of a decade - a long time for a president whose term expires in two years but a blink of an eye for a revolutionary power with an imperial past and future aspiration of grandeur.

Now, with seven more months likely to be added to this charade, Iran will be kept at the negotiating table with the bribe of US$700m a month - as the interim agreement stipulates. Given what's already been conceded, the goal can only be a bad deal. Western leverage, already weakened by one year of sanctions relief, will further diminish. The pressure from the business communities in Europe and Asia to lift restrictions will mount. And reluctance by Western powers to enforce existing sanctions lest the Iranians walk out of talks will do the rest.

As if this were not enough, an extension means that for seven more months - and maybe longer - neither Europe nor the US will implement a thorough review of their policies in the Middle East. That this review is urgent should be obvious by the alarming rise of the Islamic State. An obvious step would be to reassess Western reluctance to take on Bashar al-Assad. But such a step is not in the cards for fear of antagonising Assad's patron - Iran.

A bad deal will emerge, eventually. What will follow, though, will neither be a thaw in relations nor a diplomatic solution. There will be a regional crisis, with Iran a nuclear threshold state in a region where America's moment has already peaked.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 10:52am, November 28 2014