Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky are skeptical that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which were just extended, will ever bear fruit, given the toxic domestic politics in both Tehran and Washington. “But,” they add, “there may well be something even more fundamental at work: a strategic disconnect”:
We can’t end Iran’s nuclear capacity, so we are working to constrain it through buying time. Iran is trying to preserve as much of that capacity as possible while easing and eliminating economic pressure. And Iran is also playing with and for time. There’s really no end state, either on the nuclear issue or sanctions relief. And thus any comprehensive agreement is, by definition, interim at best. That just doesn’t add up in today’s highly charged and suspicion-laden political environment, no matter how moderate and well-intentioned the negotiators themselves may be.
The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.
The wave of Republicans who swept into office during the midterm was always going to be a problem, but coming home with yet another extension makes this problem much, much worse. Remember, the argument for imposing congressionally administered poison-pill requirements in the middle of a negotiation was that the threat of new sanctions would “strengthen” the president’s hand in dealing with those shifty Iranians. Had the White House come back with at least a “framework” agreement, the president might have been able to make the argument that Congress was about to piss away a once-in-a-generation chance at constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, another extension plays right into the argument that the president needs Congress to help strengthen his hand by being maximally insane.
To Larison’s mind, that kind of pessimism is just what opponents of a comprehensive deal were looking for:
There is a reason why Netanyahu was pleased by news of the extension, and it isn’t because he has suddenly become a supporter of diplomacy with Iran. He guesses that the longer the negotiations wear on, the more pressure opponents of any deal can bring to bear on the administration. The more time that it takes to reach a deal, the more likely it is that opponents can spoil the negotiations by pushing for new punitive measures against Iran. Unfortunately, he’s probably not wrong. While it is better to have extended the talks and kept the possibility of a deal alive, the fact that the talks had to be extended gives opponents of any deal an opening to reject further diplomacy as a waste of time. They are wrong about this, but the longer that the negotiations take without conclusion the harder it becomes to argue that the talks are still worth pursuing.
But Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, sounds a hopeful note to Laura Rozen, “comparing this week’s Iran nuclear talks in Vienna with the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the first US Soviet arms control treaty a year later”:
“In 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan had an arms control negotiation in Iceland which had the exact same parameters,” as the Iran talks in Vienna this week, Vaez said. “They were very close, they could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the talks failed. However, because at that point [the two sides’] positions became 100% clear and they knew the advantages and disadvantages of not reaching an agreement, they went back a year later, and got the first arms control between the United States and the Soviet Union.”
Similarly, the United States and Iran, in these negotiations in Vienna, over the past year have persistently seen an agreement as in their respective countries’ national interests, despite the enormous difficulties and complexities of the negotiations as well as the fact that the two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations for 35 years. “For the first time, [each side’s] real positions are 100% clear to the other side,” Vaez said. “There is a limited window of time … If they want to make progress, the chance is the best it has ever been.”
Walter Russell Mead, on the other hand, attributes the lack of a deal “the failure of American policy across the region and the splintering of U.S. alliances which the outreach to Iran has caused”, which in his view “now makes a deal with Iran much harder to reach and much more expensive to pursue”:
The Iranian nuclear issue has become hopelessly entangled in the vicious politics of the Sunni-Shi’a war now engulfing Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. Iran has effectively held out the prospect of a nuclear deal to get the U.S. to step back from the regional competition, making it look to many Sunnis that the U.S. has tilted toward the Shi’a and dreams of a New Middle Eastern Order based on a U.S.-Iranian alliance that marginalizes the Sunni Arabs, the Turks, and the Israelis. Keeping the U.S. focused on the (unlikely) prospect of a nuclear deal while undermining U.S. alliances across the region as Iran and its proxies tighten their grip is exactly what Iran wants. The Obama Administration, despite occasional signs that it recognizes the trap, so far seems to lack the vision and decisiveness needed to break out of the current destructive impasse.
Roger Cohen underscores why calls for total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, such as those emanating from Jerusalem, remain misguided:
Because it is not achievable in the real world; the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Diplomacy is about tough compromise, not ideal outcomes. The nuclear know-how attained by Iran cannot be undone. The aim must be to ring fence for at least a decade a strictly monitored program, compatible only with peaceful use of nuclear power, where enrichment is kept below 5 percent. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will not renounce the right set out in that treaty to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” at the behest of a nuclear-armed nonsignatory of that treaty, Israel. This is reality; deal with it. Iran’s nuclear program has the emotional resonance the nationalization of its oil had in the 1950s. That nationalization prompted a never-forgotten Anglo-American coup. Calls for dismantlement are seen in Iran through this prism. As Kerry’s negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, “You are doomed to failure” if you seek “a zero-sum game.” Setting impossible targets is code for favoring war.