The divided front negotiating with Iran

By Ariane Tabatabai | May 21, 2015

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers are entering their final stage. For months, the two sides have met in various cities to come up with an agreement under which Tehran would limit its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. A lot of ink has been spilled about the most visible actors in the process, but little has been said about the other parties. Despite often repeating that they represent “a united front,” the interlocutors sitting across the table from Iran do not make up a unified entity. There are very real differences among them, with each country having different interests at stake and hopes for the process.

The P5+1, as the group has come to be known, is the official party negotiating with Iran, but it can really be divided into two camps. The Western side is composed of the United States and its European partners: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. China and Russia are the non-Western parties to the talks. Though they all share the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, each of these actors also has its own agenda. Their respective interests are political, strategic, and economic.

China: The quiet mediator. Beijing is a relatively quiet member of the P5+1. Little has been written either inside or outside of China about the country’s interests, goals, and role in the process, but it does have a number of things at stake.

First, Iran is an important partner for China. On a political level, the two countries have had cordial relations since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, even though Beijing has been careful not to jeopardize its relations with Washington over Tehran. On an economic level, the two countries play an increasingly important role in each other’s markets. Trade between them was worth more than $52 billion in 2014, up from $40 billion the previous year.

Walking around the streets of major cities in Iran, the Chinese presence is obvious. From goods sold in the bazaars to infrastructure, Chinese businesses have taken Iran by storm. The reverse is also true, with Iranian businessmen easily spotted in Beijing, Shanghai, and other Chinese cities.

These economic ties don’t necessarily mean that Iranians trust Chinese products. Business owners often emphasize—truthfully or not—that their products are not Chinese. Nevertheless, even if Iran's economy starts to normalize and European businesses re-enter the Iranian market, Chinese businesses will remain present. A whole generation of Iranian business owners now has deep ties to Chinese industry, and none to Europe. This dependence goes both ways: Roughly 9 percent of China’s oil imports come from Iran

China, moreover, envisions Iran as a key part of its “One Belt, One Road” project. On paper, this initiative aims to strengthen Beijing’s economic ties to key nations throughout Central Asia, South East Asia, and the Middle East. China also aims to use its growing economic presence in those regions to increase its political and strategic influence.

Throughout the talks, China has sought to play the role of quiet mediator and “responsible” world power who wants to keep negotiations on track and everyone happy. It has often tried to make the two sides compromise and take steps towards each other. A former Chinese ambassador to Iran told Xinhua, the state-run news agency, that in the weeks leading to the November 2013 interim deal, “when the two parties came across irresolvable problems, they would come to China, which would ‘lubricate’ the negotiation and put things back on track.”

The economic factor is the main driver behind Beijing's choosing to play this role in the talks, but there are also political factors. Like Iran, China is not happy with what it perceives as a Western international order and US interference in other countries' internal affairs. But China is also aware that its interests lie in decent relations with Washington.

France: The vocal spoiler. Paris made headlines when in the final stage of the process leading to the 2013 interim deal, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius almost derailed the talks at the last minute by objecting to agreed arrangements regarding the Arak Heavy Water Reactor. In Vienna’s Coburg hotel in November 2014 and Lausanne’s Beau Rivage in March 2015, the questions negotiators and observers kept asking one another in the hallways were: Do the French have anything in store this time? Will they try to derail the process again?

France is known for its strong anti-proliferation stance in general, but is also one of the nuclear weapon states most reluctant to discuss its own disarmament, as it should do under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Additionally, Fabius deeply mistrusts Iran. His views were no doubt shaped by his personal experience with Tehran going back to the mid-1980s, when he was France’s prime minister and relations between Paris and Tehran were rocky at best. France supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq while it was at war with Iran and using chemical weapons. Paris in turn believed Iran to be behind attacks and hostage-takings by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia group.

Fabius’ strong anti-Iran stance, and his seeming willingness to derail the talks, come as a shock even to French officials and analysts, in no small part because Iran is a very attractive market for Paris. French companies are present in Iran, and would stand to benefit from a normalized Iranian economy. French car manufacturers, for instance, dominate the Iranian market. After a French senate delegation visited Iran to explore the market for French goods, it issued a report (link in French) finding that Paris’ position in the talks went against France’s own economic interests.

Nevertheless, with Fabius in charge of negotiations, France, unlike China, is not driven by economic interests as far as selling to Iran is concerned. It does have an economic interest at stake, but one that goes against normalized relations with Tehran. In recent years, Paris has become an important weapons and defense systems provider to some Arab Gulf states, including those most opposed to an Iranian nuclear deal, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Most recently, just this spring, France concluded an agreement to sell 24 Dassault Aviation-built Rafale fighter jets to Doha, a transaction worth $7 billion. This month, French President François Hollande and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a statement saying that any nuclear accord “must not destabilize the security and stability of the region nor threaten the security and stability of Iran's neighbors.”

The United States: The captain. The United States is the most visible and active member of the P5+1; it and Iran are the two parties most invested in the talks. The negotiations have kept the US State, Treasury, Energy, and Defense Departments, along with the national labs, members of Congress, and some think tank and academic circles busy for years. Thousands have been involved in the process.

US Secretary of State John Kerry's exchanges with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, make headlines on a regular basis, so the US position in the talks is well-known. Behind the US position, though, there has been a lot of push and pull in Washington. For the Obama administration, a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis could be one of two key foreign policy successes, along with Washington’s opening to Cuba. While the Obama administration didn’t get everything it wanted in the framework agreement announced in Lausanne in April—it would have, for instance, preferred to see the Fordow nuclear facility closed rather than converted to a research facility—the agreement represents what the administration can live with. For many in Congress, however, even within the president’s own Democratic party, the talks are bad news. They see the Iranian government as an authoritarian, anti-American, Islamist regime that sponsors terrorists across the Middle East. Moreover, they see anything above zero enrichment as a concession, and any sanctions relief a "carrot" that Tehran should not receive.

Russia: America’s frenemy. It's no secret that relations between the United States and Russia have once again hit a major hurdle with the crisis in Ukraine. The two countries' joint efforts to mitigate nuclear threats are no longer going smoothly, with Moscow threatening to stop participating in arms control and nuclear security cooperation, and in some cases actually doing so. Yet, Russia had also tried to position itself well in Iran and to continue its cooperation with Tehran on other fronts, sometimes despite opposition by the United States, for instance by lifting a ban on the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran last month.

Several things explain this cooperation. First, in addition to selling conventional weapons and civilian aircraft parts to Iran, Russia has a quasi-monopoly over selling materials for its nuclear program. Russia currently supplies fuel for Iran’s nuclear power plant in Bushehr. In addition, state-owned Russian company Rosatom recently concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran under which it will provide two more full-service reactors and have the possibility of also providing the other five reactors Iran is planning to build near the Persian Gulf. Under a comprehensive nuclear agreement, Russia would likely be able to further expand its presence in Iran. Eventually it might no longer have its quasi-monopoly on supplying the Iranian nuclear industry, but Iran is likely to continue working closely with Moscow even if a deal makes it possible for Tehran to approach other suppliers.

Second, Iranian and Russian interests in the Middle East have aligned in recent years, especially with regard to the conflict in Syria. Indeed, both countries support the Assad regime and are against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As such, both capitals want to preserve regional stability while keeping other players weak, and diminish the US presence and US influence in the Caspian region and the Middle East.

Third, being on the receiving end of US-led sanctions, both countries view Washington as a nuisance and threat to their interests. Russia is sympathetic to Iran, and is willing to find ways to circumvent US sanctions against it.

For all these reasons, Moscow has often cautiously played a constructive role in the talks. But it does not stand to gain as much as other P5+1 members from a comprehensive agreement. If the West and Iran normalize relations, Western Europe, and especially Germany, would gain economically, competing for market share now dominated by Russia.

Germany: Watching and waiting. Germany has been the least active member of the P5+1. In fact, the Iranians often complain about Berlin taking a backseat, despite perhaps having the most to gain. Germany, which has one of the top economies in the world, enjoys good relations with Tehran, and its industries have a great reputation there. In various technological areas, Berlin could really benefit from the reopening of the Iranian market. German businesses have indicated their eagerness to reenter the market with delegations sent to explore the possibilities. Like London, though, Berlin views the talks as being between Washington and Tehran, and has decided to let the United States take the wheel.

The United Kingdom: It's complicated. Great Britain, like Germany, decided to let the United States do its thing, and early on in the process followed Washington’s lead. In many ways it still does so. But London has been less active than Berlin in exploring the Iranian market. This partly stems from the fact that the British and Iranian embassies are currently closed in each other's respective capitals. But like its European partners, Great Britain resents the fact that the United States, despite pushing it to impose sanctions, could end up with an advantage in the Iranian market.

Despite their respective interests, though, neither Germany nor the United Kingdom is seeking to take a lead in determining the outcome of the talks. Nor is China, influential in its role as quiet mediator, obviously leading the fight for a specific agenda. That leaves France, Russia, and the United States as the most vocal and opinionated members of the P5+1, and those trying hardest to impose their vision on the outcome.

The P5+1 members do indeed all share the same goal—of finding a negotiated long-term solution that will stop Iranian nuclear development—and, at the bargaining table, are even capable of sometimes speaking as one. But they are not a unitary actor. Members are pursuing very different goals, driven by their respective domestic politics, strategic outlooks, and economic interests. The outcome of the talks will depend on the group’s internal dynamics.

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