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Iran nuclear talks: at the Rubicon

Most eyes seem to be focussed on Brussels and the clock counting down to the impending deadline on June 30th to avoid a Greek default and possible exit from the Euro.

But there is another clock – this one in Vienna – that should be holding our attention too.

The Iran nuclear talks also have until the last day of June – this coming Tuesday – to reach a final deal on the how the framework agreement reached in early April will be implemented and verified.

The talks have made more progress than sceptics expected when they began in earnest after the election of President Rouhani two years ago. The framework deal envisages Iran restraining its ability to develop nuclear weapons for ten to fifteen years in exchange for the suspension of economic sanctions imposed both unilaterally by the US and its western allies and the United Nations over the past decade that have hit the Iranian economy badly.

Back in April, the two sides – Iran and the P5+1 i.e. the US, China, Russia, France and Britain plus Germany – agreed that by June 30th they would agree the technical details of how Tehran would cap its programme, how that would be verified and how the sanctions would be lifted, including how they would be re-imposed in the event of a breach by Tehran.

The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, who have been the key drivers of the talks arrive in Vienna tomorrow to add their weight to the final push to overcome the remaining hurdles

According to media reports these include a demand Tehran open up its non-nuclear military sites, including its missile production facilities, to inspection, and an American idea – unlikely to get Moscow’s approval – for the mechanism for re-introducing sanctions to by-pass the UN Security Council where of course Russia and China have a veto.

Both the US and Iran seem to genuinely want to do a deal, but not at any price.

There have been hints the talks, like those for the framework deal, could continue a few days past their deadline, but the possibility of failure is real and the cost of that in a region already beset by open conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – all of which are partly driven by a proxy war between Shia Iran and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia – and the simmering tension between Israel and the Palestinians could be exorbitant.

President Obama has taken a high stakes gamble to try to reach a diplomatic solution to the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme. But in so doing he has stoked up already heightened/exaggerated (delete as appropriate) fears in the US over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme – despite US intelligence concluding an attempt to develop nuclear weapons ended over a decade ago.

So if the talks fail, the political pressure on the Obama Administration from both Republicans and Democrats – watch presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton – to take alternative “tough” action will mount.

And if it is the demands of the western countries at the table that are seen to be the main cause of breakdown, Russia and China may break ranks preventing further constructive action by the UN.

This would increase the pressure on the White House still further by narrowing its options, especially its ability to emphasise the need for building consensus for a unified international response before taking unilateral action.

Then there is Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, recently re-elected and heading a new right-wing coalition, is a possible wildcard. He has made no secret of his intention to take pre-emptive action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which would challenge Tel Aviv’s own arsenal.

Military strategists debate whether Israel has the capability to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities effectively without support from the US. But Tehran would undoubtedly respond, either directly or via its allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, so even an abortive Israeli attack would have unpredictable consequences in a region already wracked by war.

Talk of a widespread conflagration in the Middle East has such a long pedigree the danger now is a complacent attitude that things there will not get much worse.

But with the US moving towards a policy of confronting growing Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, if the Iran talks fail there will be voices inside the White House arguing it would be dangerous to risk escalation with Tehran as well, so it would be best to restrain Israel and stick to sanctions.

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