TEHRAN — Deal or no deal, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has his counterparts in the nuclear negotiations right where he wants them. Despite his insistence that "we have to negotiate with all of the P5+1 countries," Iran's chief negotiator has rid Tehran of the burden of convincing individual world powers to come onboard a solution. Active diplomacy has shifted this weight to primarily Washington and London, which must now deal with divisions among the P5+1.
A unified West has, in the strategic sense, never been in Iran’s interest — unless it is all in agreement with Tehran on a deal. It was in opposition to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that held them — and other members of the P5+1 — together in recent years. That there are now cracks among these six countries should not come as a surprise.
In Tehran, this narrative of a shift in burden is gradually taking hold. On Nov. 9, the rapporteur of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Seyed Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, criticized Paris' behavior, underlining that "this illogical behavior should be confronted by the other members of the group [P] 5+1."
In other words — for Zarif — so far, so good.
However, there are dark clouds ahead. And Iran's foreign minister knows it.
After his very brief joint press conference on Nov. 10 with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Zarif moved on to a session exclusively with domestic media outlets. According to the Iranian daily Shargh, Zarif said in response to questions about France's role in the talks: "Conspiracy theories [are] not helpful. Differences of opinion are normal." He also emphasized this point earlier in the day, saying that "among [P5+1] powers members, there is a general discord of positions, which consume much time in negotiations. … They hold different views, and definitely, have different interests, which makes it necessary to come to an agreement."
Zarif has good reasons for preventing "conspiracy theories" from taking hold. His future hinges on his ability to portray the P5+1 as genuinely divided — partly due to his approach.
However, in Geneva, Zarif may inadvertently have given his opponents ammunition against himself.
Zarif particularly provided fertile ground for "conspiracy theories" in an interview with the outlet IR Diplomacy. He told the reporter, "When we convened the Paris negotiations on March 23, 2005, I remember that during the seven hours I was negotiating with the three countries, John Bolton — who was then the deputy secretary of state and in charge of disarmament in the cabinet — called the French party seven times to make sure that no agreement was reached."
If anything, Zarif's allusion to the reversed roles of France and the United States did nothing but strengthen the basis of the "conspiracy theories" he seeks to fight.
In the same interview, Zarif stated that while the United States is "perhaps the most important state player in the international scene … its significance … cannot solve the problem by itself."
Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani have bet heavily on direct talks with the "sheriff" working out. Their approach has been guided by their experiences of US subterfuge in the negotiations with the EU3 eight years ago.
If the Iranian government's engagement with the P5+1 — including direct talks with the United States — does not lead to a practical outcome soon, "conspiracy theories" are likely to take hold in Tehran. Moreover, if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lets up on his explicit backing for Zarif and his team, it is not difficult to see the purpose of negotiating directly with the United States — touted as crucial for movement on the nuclear issue by the Rouhani administration — questioned further.
While Iran's supreme leader is behind the Iranian government for now, this might not last forever.
Zarif and Rouhani both know they are on the clock. The two men have on repeated occasions explicitly set a time frame for the resolution of the nuclear issue. In Geneva, Zarif once again alluded to the danger of not adhering to this time frame: "There are … concerns inside Iran with regard to the lack of seriousness of the United States and the West in these negotiations. This concern will be intensified with the passage of time … therefore, the passage of time is not to the benefit of negotiations."
Conversely, US President Barack Obama is finding himself in a similar bind. The survival of his first, genuine attempt at diplomacy with Iran, too, is dependent on a portrayal of the P5+1 as divided. The single most powerful ammunition against forces bent on derailing the current opening via new sanctions is the argument that such measures will only lead to a fracturing of the international consensus on Iran.
Thus, the Iranian and US administrations are finding themselves in a bizarre situation, where they both must push the narrative of divisions abroad to close ranks and prevent sabotage at home.
If they fail, and the nuclear deadlock continues, the P5+1 will have to contend with both Iranian and US rigidity imposed by extremists, rather than the current flexibility. In other words, a dead end.