On Thursday, Reuters reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had weighed in on the talks via a speech in the Russian city of Ufa. In it he claimed that the talks were in their final stages and that “Western powers have accepted that it is impossible to stop Iran’s scientific progress.”
But by Friday a variety of media were reporting Iranian officials as saying that a resolution remained out of reach on account of hardening of Western positions and the supposed existence of individual red lines for American, British, French, and German negotiators.
This narrative had already begun to emerge on Thursday, around the same time as Rouhani’s speech. The Jerusalem Post then reported that Iranian state TV cited an unnamed source close to the negotiations as saying, “The West has toughened its stance within last few hours, and in a clear U-turn even refuses to accept Iran’s nuclear rights.”
On Friday, Bloomberg News gave a rather more neutral assessment, describing both sides of the talks as having hardened their positions in advance of the Friday deadline, the second extension since the negotiations missed their target of June 30. CNN now reports that the talks have been extended through Monday, and that the existing freeze on economic sanctions against Iran would be extended along with them.
British Ambassador Phillip Hammond acknowledged that progress in the negotiations is “painfully slow,” and Western negotiators have long cited Iranian intransigence as a major cause of the failure to reach self-imposed deadlines. At the beginning of the week, US Secretary of State John Kerry invoked this language, saying that the US was prepared to walk away from negotiations if the Iranians failed to make “tough decisions” in the coming days.
This threat technically remains in place, but also remains demonstrably weak. On Thursday, AFP quoted Kerry as saying that the US was prepared to leave the negotiations, but would not do so “just because the clock strikes midnight” as long as progress is still being made.
On Friday, Reuters elaborated by noted that Kerry emphasized the US would not rush to bring an end to the talks, although the White House did not foresee itself allowing the talks to drag on for “many more weeks.”
It is unclear what degree of progress currently exists in these talks and how much progress is considered necessary to justify continued extensions. Nevertheless, virtually all public statements emphasize that some progress is being made. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi claims that a final draft agreement is approximately 96 percent complete. But Araqchi has also made the dubious claim that the talks are entirely complete with respect to the immediate removal of all sanctions upon conclusion of the deal.
This narrative suggests that all that remains from the Iranian perspective is to extract further concessions from the West regarding what Iran must do to secure the end of those sanctions. This is a scenario that is widely feared by Western critics of the negotiations, many of whom regard the Obama administration as already having given away the vast majority of the initial Western goals for these talks.
Nevertheless, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini went even further than Araqchi on Friday, claiming, according to AFP, that the full text of a final agreement has already been written and that the only thing that remains is for the negotiators to solidify their agreement. At the same time that this presents an optimistic view of the prospects of a deal, it also implies that the Western powers consider their current proposal to be the final proposal.
This is clearly not acceptable to the Iranians, who made similar remarks earlier in the week. The Jerusalem Post reported that Iranian officials claimed to have made a new proposal while also emphasizing that they would not compromise their red lines. Western negotiators indicated, however, that they were only in possession of previously-offered proposals.
In light of all this, the overall situation seems to be one in which neither side is willing to move from their current positions. And this has certainly contributed to skepticism about whether an agreement will be finalized at all. This sentiment was expressed on Fox News Radio on Friday by Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who believes that Kerry’s recent remarks have been preparing the American public for the prospect of diplomatic failure.
In a talk hosted this week by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, former National Security Council senior staffer Raymond Tanter concurred with this assessment, but added that instead of walking away cold, the Obama administration might extend the 2013 Joint Plan of Action indefinitely.
This week also saw some speculation that this is precisely the outcome that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been seeking through his imposition of red lines that are widely perceived as the main obstacles to a final agreement. This perception is arguably supported by a report published Friday by PanArmenian, which noted that Iranian officials insist they are prepared to stay at the negotiating table indefinitely.
These remarks came in part from Khamenei’s senior advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, who was also quoted as aggressively blaming the West for recent delays in the negotiating process. Velayati accused the US waging “psychological warfare against Iran” by repeatedly imposing deadlines and then violating them. This commentary seems to deliberately embrace open-ended talks – something that the US has not publicly considered although Tanter and others have raised the possibility.
Still, other Western critics of the negotiations still worry that the Obama administration will capitulate even to the latest Iranian demands for an end to weapons embargos and the abandonment of a probe into the possibile military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. Speaking alongside Tanter in Wednesday’s NCRI panel discussion, White House special envoy on nuclear nonproliferation Robert Joseph said, “The Iranians have managed to squeeze out concession after concession by playing with these deadlines,” and that there was every reason to suppose it would continue to do so.