These talks have been going on since 2013—the issue is decades old.
Western concern over Iran's nuclear programs goes back decades. Since the late 1990s, various intelligence agencies have been warning Iran was just a couple of years away from a nuclear bomb. In 2003, weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran's nuclear activities were not in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a party. Later that year, talks started between Iran and France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. They broke down in 2005 over Iran's nuclear enrichment activities.
The talks being held in Vienna started nearly two years ago between Iran, the United States, and France, Germany, the U..K., Russia, and China, after Iran agreed to halt its enrichment program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. In April, negotiators struck a framework for a deal, and then started arguing over what the deal entailed. That framework set a late June deadline to finalize a deal—negotiators missed that deadline, and another one this week, giving themselves three more days to make a deal. Pushing the deadline back means extending sanctions relief provided for in the framework, and earlier.
It's supposed to be a multilateral deal, but it's really about Iran and the U.S.
In late 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed there was a missed opportunity for a deal in 2003, when an unsigned memo sent via fax through the Swiss ambassador in Iran claimed Iranian leaders were willing to talk about Iran's nuclear program, its refusal to recognize the state of Israel, and its support for regional militant groups in wider negotiations. Relatively high level officials from Iran and the U.S. were talking at the time about al-Qaeda, not Iran's nuclear program, but didn't mention it. Hassan Rouhani, now the president of Iran and in 2003 Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, mentioned in 2012 that he had heard President Bush was interested in all-encompassing talks in 2003, but that no one from Iran went for it.
France, Germany, and the U.K. tried, but eventually the talks broke down. Russia, China, and the U.S. first joined in 2006, and talks were on-and-off since then. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil tried to broker an agreement on Iran's nuclear supply, but it was shot down by the U.S. It was the U.S.'s concession of "permitting" Iran to continue enrichment during talks that kickstarted negotiations in 2013. Despite the participation of other countries over the years, the U.S.'s role has been critical, because of the part the U.S. plays in the sanctions regime imposed on Iran and its security commitments in Europe and the Middle East. The U.S. doesn't have to be at the center of the issue, but that's where it placed itself.
Once negotiators agree to something, it has to be approved by the different countries' domestic processes.
The U.S. Congress is the first place most people will look if a deal is struck in Vienna. In April, Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, a measure that would create a 60-day window for Congress to approve a deal after one is struck, but the deal with have to go through the wringer of other countries' domestic processes as well. And it's not just Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress expressing concern over the deal. The head of the foreign affairs committee of the French National Assembly said the French parliament was a "guardian" against a deal she said it appeared the U.S. and Iran were too eager to make. The domestic politics around the Iran deal illustrate much of its futility. Is President Obama seeking a deal good for the region, or a deal good for his legacy? Residents in the U.S., France, and elsewhere all might have opinions about Iran, but the threat of a potential Iranian nuclear bomb is more limited. The U.S. is out of range of any missiles Iranians have developed—where the French might be more worried, they should have more of a role in the deal, and the U.S. less.
Critics say Obama weakened the U.S. position in negotiations. No, the Iraq war did that.
Domestic critics of President Obama's stance on Iranian negotiations claim the president has weakened America's position. The argument boils down to: President Obama expressed too much willingness to talk, thus weakening America's position in talks, an odd, tautological argument against the prospect of diplomacy. Which isn't to say the American position isn't weaker compared to where it was. Whether or not the Swiss fax was a serious thing—Richard Armitage, a U.S. diplomatic official, said the U.S. would have taken it more seriously had officials known it had the backing of Mohammad Zarif, now the Iranian foreign minister—a better deal was likely possible ten years ago.
After the U.S. invaded Iraq over its alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003, Col. Qaddafi, then the leader of Libya, unilaterally announced he would give up his own country's WMD program. He was ousted during a Western-backed civil war in Libya in 2011. The war in Iraq signaled to countries the U.S. was willing, at least then, to expend a lot of resources and take a lot of risks to prevent the possibility of certain nemeses possessing certain kinds of weapons. Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, said after his capture by U.S. forces that he was bluffing about holding weapons of mass destruction because he believed the U.S. was bluffing and had known that he was too.
Hussein's WMD bluff was aimed at Iran, whom he feared more than the U.S. as a potential aggressor. In the intervening years, the U.S. managed, through the war in Iraq, to display that it could not back its WMD demands with competent military force while also, through the Libyan civil war, illustrate why perhaps relinquishing WMDs was not the wisest move for a regime that might have a tenuous grasp on power.
Iran doesn't recognize the state of Israel, but Israel isn't the only country in the region worried about a deal.
The Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize Israel as a state. While the current president eschews the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric popular with his predecessor, Iran's refusal to recognize the Jewish state and its support for Palestinian militant groups has made Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu one of the fiercest critics of a nuclear deal with Iran. But he's not the only one.
For similar reasons, Saudi Arabia is worried about a deal. The Arab kingdom is waging a proxy war against Iran, leading a military campaign against Iranian-backed militants that overthrew the government in Yemen. Iran recognizes Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia isn't at the negotiating table either. Saudi Arabia and Israel, not allies themselves, are both aligned with the U.S., and would prefer to see American negotiators take a harder-line stance because that reflects their own.
But U.S. participation in nuclear talks is part of the reason Saudi Arabia, at least, isn't participating. Insofar as Iran's nuclear program is a security issue, it's a regional one. Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons—and no talks preceded the program that led to them. Iran points to countries like Pakistan and Brazil, both with nuclear programs (and the former a nuclear weapons program) to which other world powers acquiesced only after the programs were fruitful. India, too, was condemned for its nuclear weapons program. Now it strikes nuclear trade deals with the U.S.
For different reasons, Iran and the rest of the world look to the U.S. to approve Iran's nuclear program—believing it will monitor any program it "permits." It's an inappropriate role for the U.S., one that has the perverse effect of encouraging nuclear proliferation while discouraging engagement over non-proliferation.