So the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna appear to have ended with absolutely no change in the status quo, the New York Times reports:
Hours away from a Monday deadline for completing a new accord to curb Iran’s nuclear program, negotiators planned to extend negotiations and expected to reconvene next month, a Western diplomat said.
A location for the December talks has yet to be chosen, but over the past month, Secretary of State John Kerry has met with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Muscat, Oman, and in Vienna.
American officials and their negotiating partners have yet to explain if any substantial progress was made in the latest round of talks here and what gaps remain. President Obama said in a television interview on Sunday that there were still “significant” differences between the two sides.
It was also unclear how long the talks would be prolonged, as negotiators try to resolve crucial issues, including how much nuclear fuel Iran could produce, how long the accord would last and how intrusive inspections would be.
If this is accurate — and The Washington Post, BBC, Reuters and the Associated Press are reporting the same thing — then this will be the second blown deadline for the P5+1 talks (the first came in July). So the status quo that is being preserved is that Iran continues to get modest but not major sanctions relief, its known nuclear program remains frozen, the parties continue to talk, and deadlines don’t mean all that much.
Based on the dogs that are not barking, the barriers to further agreement appear to be on the Iranian side. Given the presence of U.S., U.K., French, German, E.U., Russian and Chinese negotiators, it’s striking that there have been no leaks to the press in which anyone accuses the United States or United Kingdom of obstinacy in these talks. Furthermore, the known unknown on the Iranian side is the gap between the government of President Hassan Rouhani — which needs a deal to jump-start the economy — and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is, let’s say, “ambivalent” about the whole shebang.
The one thing both sides do appear to agree on is that they do not want to return to the Era Before Negotiations. All of the P5+1 countries have economic or geopolitical incentives for Iran to rejoin the Semi-Respectable Nations Club. Similarly, even Khamenei seems to prefer that Iran not be completely isolated — and they do appear to like the $700 million in sanctions relief they get every month.
Nevertheless, the more deadlines that get extended, the less the deadlines have much meaning. Also, I suspect that the longer the negotiations drag out, the easier it will be for opponents in the United States to frame the deal as a loser. Iran has drawn these talks out, they’re stalling, they can’t be trusted, yadda yadda yadda.
Deadlines are artificial constructs, so if progress has been made in Vienna, extending the talks is the mature thing to do. But if Iran is comfortable with a status quo of modest sanctions relief, then there’s little pressure for Tehran to ever reach a comprehensive deal. So I suspect that at some point in 2015, the P5+1 will have to set a deadline and treat it as the final one, to suss out whether Iran really wants a comprehensive deal or not.
Developing — well into 2015.