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What happens to sanctions on Iran if nuclear deal fizzles?

Ahead of 30 June nuclear negotiation deadline, diplomats consider the future of sanctions that have ravaged the country's economy
An Iranian woman pays a 20,000 Rial banknote - worth about 69 US cents - to a grocer in Tehran in 2012 (AFP)
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WASHINGTON - Internationally supported sanctions against Iran could begin to crumble if talks over Iran's nuclear programme fail to produce a final deal, according to Germany's envoy to the US.

"The alternatives to the diplomatic approach are not very attractive," said Ambassador Peter Wessig on Tuesday.

"If diplomacy fails, the sanctions regime might unravel…and we would probably see Iran enriching once again as it has done before the negotiations started," said the diplomat during a panel discussion in Washington at the Atlantic Council.

The sanctions that have ravaged the Iranian economy face far less risk, however, if Tehran were seen as responsible for the failure, according to the United Kingdom's envoy to the US.

"If there is not a deal because the Iranians simply will not live up to [their obligations] or [fail to] implement…then I think we carry on with the sanctions regime and in certain areas it may be right to try to raise the level of those sanctions," said Ambassador Peter Westmacott.

But Westmacott agreed with his German counterpart that if Iran were not to blame, the sanctions regime could fall apart.

"At the same time, if we were to walk away or if the [US] Congress was to make it impossible for the agreement to be implemented…then I think the international community would be pretty reluctant, frankly, to contemplate a ratcheting up further of the sanctions against Iran," he said.

"A number of countries" already "don't respect" sanctions and are buying Iranian oil, he added.

Looming deadline

Ahead of the 30 June deadline for reaching a final deal, Iran will resume the negotiations with representatives from the P5+1 or E3+3 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on Wednesday in Vienna.

Talks with Iran over its controversial nuclear program have been ongoing since 2003, when France, Germany and the UK (the E3) began to engage Iran in an attempt to limit its nuclear programme.

Iran contends its programme has always been peaceful. To date, there is no evidence that Tehran is currently building a nuclear weapon.

The US intelligence community has assessed that Iran was previously working towards mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, but had not restarted a nuclear weapons program.

"It's a political decision for them. Not that they don't have the technical wherewithal, the technical competence, because they do," said the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on 2 March on PBS' Charlie Rose show.

Although Iran and its negotiating partners have made several historic diplomatic strides since an interim nuclear agreement was reached 2013 in Geneva - notably the ongoing high-level direct contact between previously hostile Tehran and Washington - the talks have yet to produce a final deal.

It's unclear how much progress has actually been made in the complex private negotiations since a preliminary framework agreement was declared on 2 April, but the parties are currently in the drafting phase.

The French ambassador to the US, Gerard Araud, wasn't optimistic during the Atlantic Council event.

"It's very likely that we won't have an agreement before the end of June or even (right) after," he said.

"Even if we get the best deal ... afterwards, you will have to translate it into the technical annexes, so it may be ... we could have a sort of fuzzy end to the negotiation," he added.

High Stakes

While domestic politics in the key capitals of Tehran and Washington could ultimately prove to be the greatest barriers to a final deal, all sides seem to be waiting until after the deadline to make more moves.

But patience is running thin among key Iranian and American lawmakers, who have made no secret of their opposition to the talks. If no deal is reached by 30 June, the door to a wave of domestic criticism in both capitals will once again be wide open.

Peter Jenkins, who previously served as the UK's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN, told IPS that even if Iran were blamed for the breakdown of the talks, it wouldn't end up totally isolated.

"I doubt the non-Western world will be ready to believe that the blame for a break-down lies solely with Iran," Jenkins said.

"They will suspect that some of the blame should be ascribed to the US and EU for making demands that go well beyond the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So those of them that have been applying sanctions may break away," he said.

"In the west, however, most countries will believe what the US instructs them to believe and will continue to apply sanctions if required to do so by the US," he added.

As for an impending blame-game, Jenkins said the stakes are too high for everyone to give in to complete breakdown at this point: "I think it much more likely that they will make a herculean effort to cobble together an agreement over the ensuing weeks."

"Both sides have so much to gain from an agreement and so much to lose if they squander all that they have achieved to date," he said.