The U.S. is one of six nations at the table with Iran in Vienna, but the nuclear talks are shaping up to be a high-stakes game of chicken between Washington and Tehran.
The question is, who will blink first? Many would argue it’s the one who wants the deal more.
One common narrative is that Secretary of State John Kerry, enchanted with his budding relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and desperate to cement his place in history, will become wobbly and give the Iranians too many concessions in a final agreement.
It’s a narrative Kerry aides firmly reject, insisting Kerry has several times threatened to walk away from the table. It also reflects a lack of understanding about the way negotiations of this nature work. While as lead negotiator Kerry may decide tactics, he can’t ultimately can’t cross red lines set by President Barack Obama, any more than Zairf or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani can cross the red lines set by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
Obama, too, badly wants a deal. He also has a legacy to firm up. And without an agreement, he faces the possibility that his final 15 months in office will feature the threat of an accelerated Iranian nuclear program, a breakdown of the sanctions regime and tensions with Israel — even the remote possibility of an Israeli military strike. What’s more, Iran could also act out more in the region, increasing its antagonism of U.S. allies.
Obama’s tough comments
But is Obama so desperate for a deal that he is willing to make concessions that abandon the basic parameters he laid out and open him up to critics’ accusations of capitulation?
His comments during a press conference Friday, in which he said there would not be a deal unless it verifiably cut all pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon, suggest he intends to hang tough.
The Supreme Leader, for his part, laid out some pretty tough red lines himself in a speech last week. His seven demands, re-posted on Twitter, included a shorter duration for a deal and its restrictions on Iranian nuclear research, immediate removal of economic sanctions once a deal is hatched and the banning of inspections at Iranian military sites. All seemed contrary to the political framework agreed to in April in Lausanne, Switzerland.
On the face of it, Khamenei wins whether there is a deal or not. If the Americans don’t give in, he remains heroic in holding out against the U.S. But in the event of a deal, Iran could make billions of dollars from the lifting of sanctions and get to maintain the majority of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
From a pure economic standpoint, however, Iran needs the deal more than the U.S. If the deal isn’t reached, most Americans won’t feel it. But everyone in Iran will, because of what Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls the country’s “SOS economy” — an economy debilitated by sanctions, a drop in oil prices and a massive investment to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
“The Supreme Leader has always prided himself on resistance against the United States and not compromising in the face of pressure,” Sadjapour said. “This could be one of the few instances in his career where the economic imperatives of compromising outweigh the political risks of abandoning Iran’s revolutionary animus against America.”
Critics see U.S. desperation
Still, those skeptical of the talks and Obama’s positions think the U.S. is the one that’s acting like it needs the deal more.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, accused the Obama administration of “increasing desperation to get a deal” in an op-ed for The Washington Post Wednesday.
McCarthy said the American positions on three aspects of the ongoing negotiations — inspections, sanctions relief and information on any past Iranian military nuclear work — weren’t sufficiently tough and “reflect this administration’s unbridled quest for an agreement.”
But Robert Einhorn, a former top non-proliferation official in the Obama administration who served on the U.S. negotiating team with Iran, argued that despite the perception among critics of the deal that the administration is overeager and prepared to make unwanted concessions, the U.S. has actually achieved most of its negotiating objectives in the deal. What some may see as a cave, he said, is simply a realistic articulation of what the U.S. delegation expected all along.
“Sure, it’s made some accommodations, but that is the nature of negotiating,” according to Einhorn. “Unless you conquer a country in battle, you need to make compromise.”
American officials say they are clear-eyed about what is possible and what is not. While they are insisting on certain provisions in the deal to verify that Iran is complying with the limits placed on its nuclear program, they recognize the Iranians need to save face and cannot appear to be capitulating.
For example, they need Iran to allow intrusive inspections, but they are trying to do so in a way that will give Tehran the capacity to say is isn’t giving up on its sovereignty.
“The art of diplomacy in a situation like this is finding solutions … that appear at the same time to be gestures to the Iranian side,” said Einhorn. “It is necessary to enable the Iranians to climb off the limb they have gotten out on. They have got to find a way to enable the Iranians to have a narrative that the solution is compatible with the leader’s red line.”
Most officials and experts expect a deal will be reached — eventually. But they are split about whether enough progress will be made to ink an agreement by the new July 7 deadline. That is seen as the latest date the U.S. team can conclude the paperwork and meet a July 9 reporting requirement to Congress.
Devil in the lack of details
Einhorn, Sadjapour and Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator now with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, agree that even if the parties can come up with language that pleases everyone, the devil may not be in the details, but the lack of them.
In the Lausanne agreement, many of the issues were not resolved with great precision. That gave the Iranians the opportunity to publicly disagree with the U.S. interpretation despite what their negotiators had agreed to on paper. Iran’s position then hardened further when the parties gathered recently in Vienna to conclude the negotiations.
“The real deal here is not desperation. It’s imprecision and a rush to conclude an agreement that will essentially leave too much ambiguity, and not the creative kind,” said Miller.
If there is a deal, there will be no second chance for clarification. When the U.S. and its partners leave Vienna, they must make sure their interpretation matches the Iranians’ or pay the price later.
“They may be able to write a document which manages to placate both sides,” Sadjapour said. “But when it comes to implementation, it may open up Pandora’s box. CNN Washington