Iran Nuclear Talks: The Price of Failure

Once upon a time, it seemed that the Obama Administration had held off opponents in Congress as well as pressure from Israel in order to Khamenei_Rouhani_Ahmadinejad_Iran-620x350press forward with negotiations with Iran. It seemed that President Barack Obama’s penchant for diplomacy was finally bearing fruit and that the United States and Iran were coming to the table with a sense of determination and an understanding that a compromise needed to be reached over Iran’s nuclear program.

These days, the story is different. Almost halfway through the four-month extension period the parties agreed to in July, the possibility of failure is more prominently on people’s minds, despite the fact that significant progress has been made in the talks. Right now, both sides have dug in their heels over the question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. Iran wants sufficient latitude to build and power more nuclear reactors on their own, while the United States wants a much more restrictive regime.

Part of the calculus on each side is the cost to the other of the failure of talks. Iran is certainly aware that, along with escalating tensions with Russia, the U.S. is heading into what is sure to be a drawn-out conflict with the Islamic State (IS). The U.S. and its partners would clearly prefer to avoid a new crisis with the Islamic Republic, especially when the they need to work with Iran on battling IS forces, however independently and/or covertly they may do it.

The U.S. certainly recognizes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked a good deal of his political life on eliminating the sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy. But both sides would be wise to avoid a game of chicken here, where they are gambling that the other side will ultimately be forced to blink first.

On the U.S. side, there are many in Washington who would not be satisfied with anything less than a total Iranian surrender, something the Obama administration is not seeking. Those forces are present in both parties, and, indeed, even if Democrats hold the Senate and win the White House in 2016, those voices are likely to become more prominent as time goes on.

But many believe that on the Iranian side, this is a life-or-death issue politically for the reform-minded Rouhani, and that may not be the case. It is certainly true that conservative forces in Iran, which had been ascendant under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are lying in wait to pounce on Rouhani if he doesn’t manage to work out a deal that removes U.S.-led sanctions against Iran. It is also true that Rouhani deals with a Supreme Leader who is highly skeptical not only of Washington’s sincerity,  but of the kind program Rouhani’s reform-minded allies wish to pursue on the domestic front. Rouhani’s support derives most reliably from an Iranian public  fed up with the failure of the conservatives to improve their lives. He dare not disappoint them.

But if Washington policy-makers believe that this amounts to a political gun to Rouhani’s head, they are mistaken.  In a just-released paper published by the Wilson Center. Farideh Farhi,  the widely quoted Iran expert at the University of Hawaii Manoa (and LobeLog contributor), points out that Rouhani does have options if the negotiations fall apart.

“To be sure, Rouhani will be weakened, in similar ways presidents in other countries with contested political terrains suffer when unable to deliver on key promised policies,”  according to Farhi.

But he will continue to be president for at least another three, if not seven, years. The hardliners will still not have their men at the helm of the executive branch and key cabinet ministries. Given their limited political base for electoral purposes, they will still have to find a way to organize and form coalitions to face a determined alliance of centrists, reformists, and moderate conservatives—the same alliance that helped bring Rouhani to power—in the parliamentary election slotted for early 2016. And, most importantly, Rouhani will still have the vast resources of the Iranian state at his disposal to make economic and social policy and will work with allies to make sure that the next parliament will be more approving of his policies.

Farhi’s point is important. Rouhani has options and he need not accept a deal that can be easily depicted by conservatives as surrendering Iran’s independent nuclear program. As pointed out in a recent survey of Iranian public opinion we covered earlier in the week, this issue is particularly fraught in Iran. It has been a point of national pride that Iran has refused to bend to Western diktats on its nuclear program, diktats that are seen as hypocritical and biased by most Iranians. That estimate is not an unfair one, given previous demands by the U.S. (and one still insisted upon by Israel and its U.S. supporters) that Iran forgo all uranium enrichment. Such a position would force Iran to depend on the goodwill and cooperation of other countries — Russia, in the first instance — whose reliability in fulfilling commitments may depend on how they perceive their national interest at any given moment.  Other countries are not held to such a standard, a source of considerable resentment across the Iranian political spectrum.

Rouhani has wisely chosen not to challenge the public on this point, but rather commit himself to finding an agreement that would end sanctions while maintaining Iran’s nuclear independence, albeit under a strict international inspection regime. This is far from an impossible dream. The Arms Control Association published a policy brief last month with a very reasonable outline for how just such a plan which would satisfy the needs of both Iran and the P5+1.

In principle, both sides could live with such an outcome if they can put domestic politics aside. But of course, they cannot.

Still, the consequences of failure must not be ignored. With Barack Obama heading into his final two years as President, it is quite possible, if not probable, that his successor — regardless of party affiliation — will be much less favorable toward a deal with Iran. In that case, we go back to Israeli pressure for a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran and escalating tensions as Iran feels more and more besieged by the Washington and its western allies.

Rouhani, for his part, may be able to continue his path of reform and re-engagement with the West, but the failure of these talks would be an unwelcome obstacle, according to Farhi.

Rouhani and his nuclear team have had sufficient domestic support to conduct serious negotiations within the frame of P5+1. But as the nuclear negotiations have made clear, the tortured history of U.S.-Iran relations as well as the history of progress in Iran’s nuclear program itself will not allow the acceptance of just any deal. Failure of talks will kill neither Rouhani’s presidency nor the ‘moderation and prudence’ path he has promised. But it will make his path much more difficult to navigate.

All of this seems to amount to sufficient incentive for the two sides to bring themselves toward the reasonable compromise that both can surely envision. At least, one hopes so.

Dismantling the Target

The new nuclear talks with Iran seem to be reflecting a new direction for the Islamic Republic under Hassan Rowhani and a new openness from the US and Europe to a reasonable compromise. The unhappy parties are Israel and Saudi Arabia, but at least for now, they are not able to scuttle the hope for a resolution. Some of what this theater demonstrates is the obvious fact to anyone who has been paying attention for the past fifteen years: the entire issue of an Iranian bomb has been phony. I explain this week in Souciant.

The Tangled Web of a U.S.-Iran Thaw

The real Iranian nuclear threat has apparently already taken hold. New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” has sent the war hawks scurrying as if the bomb had really gone off.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been relentless in his increasingly desperate efforts to cast Rouhani in the same mould as his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Marsha Cohen points out, however, his tones are ringing hollow. Ahmadinejad provided Netanyahu with the almost cartoonish foil he needed, but Rouhani strikes a much more reasonable pose.

In the US, the counter to the charm offensive is kicking into high gear. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was thoroughly dismissive of Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly, which most observers considered conciliatory and matching a similar tone by US President Barack Obama. Engel, by contrast, said: “Far from engaging in a ‘charm offensive,’ he repeated too many of the same old talking points blaming the United States and our allies for all of the world’s ills.”

Even before Rouhani’s speech, the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel launched a web site attacking Rouhani. The site, dubbed “The Real Rouhani,” pieces together some legitimate and some questionable news reports on the Iranian president, most of which are quotes and citations taken out of context to sound more sinister than they are. They sum it all up by calling Rouhani a Holocaust denier, something Netanyahu has also done.

It’s fair to be dissatisfied with Rouhani’s evasion of questions on the Holocaust, which becomes an issue for outsiders largely because Ahmadinejad made such a spectacle of it during his time, a very real and despicable spectacle which was naturally magnified by the Western press. Rouhani initially ducked the question by saying he was not a historian. While in New York, and probably realizing that this response was not having the desired effect, Rouhani told CNN “…in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable…Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn.”

That’s better, but it probably leaves the Holocaust denial bullet in Netanyahu and the neocons’ gun. Doubtless, Rouhani is trying not to raise more hackles among the Iranian conservatives that Ahmadinejad represents than he has to, but this is probably one he can and should go farther with. Still, even before Rouhani’s clarification, the Holocaust denier trope didn’t seem to be getting much play, certainly nothing like it did with Ahmadinejad. But right now, people are looking with hope to Rouhani; if that should change, his weak response to this question will certainly come back to haunt him.

Some have expressed disappointment with Rouhani’s UN speech, having hoped for a bolder step forward toward the U.S. This is reinforced by the White House claim that they proposed a brief meeting on the margins of the UN but were rebuffed by the Iranians, who said it was too complicated at this time.

The naysayers are wrong. A meeting with Obama, however brief, would certainly have pleased Western peace supporters, but in Iran, where crippling sanctions are hammering people every day and where, despite Obama’s conciliatory words, people are understandably skeptical of U.S. intentions, such a meeting would have been premature. It could easily be used by conservatives to demonstrate weakness on Rouhani’s part, portraying it as a warm gesture to a government that is strangling Iranians with no promise, or even indication that an easing of the sanctions regime is on the horizon.

Even in the West, it is probably better that no chance encounter took place. Although the U.S. tactic of refusing to talk is a dead end that produces no tangible benefits for anyone (as Stephen Walt aptly points out), since we have pursued it, raising hopes for a quick breakthrough is probably unwise. Expectations need to be managed.

The U.S.-Iranian impasse is much deeper than the nuclear issue and the mutual antipathy between Israel and the Islamic Republic. Many more issues are involved, and they mount on top of a long history of problems between the U.S. and Iran, of which the 1953 CIA-backed coup and the 1979-80 hostage crisis are only the best known.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a good rundown of the various issues and complications facing the two countries in any attempt to thaw relations. The major flaw, though, in Cordesman’s piece is that he frames the current issue within the notion of a relentless Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon. This doesn’t mesh with the facts, as intelligence estimates for the past six years, including those of the U.S. and Israel, agree that Iran has halted its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, while retaining the ability to start the process again. An Iranian weapons program only seems to have existed in the early years of the century, when U.S. ambitions for regime change were at their height.

Beyond that point, Cordesman gives a good description of the complexities inherent in trying to turn back years of U.S.-Iranian enmity. But he does an even better job of laying out the case for why the status quo serves neither country well and why a warming of relations can bring great benefits to both countries and the entire Middle East.

One major issue that divides the two countries is, indeed, Israel. If Iran and the U.S. wanted to try to patch things up, even if the nuclear issue was resolved to mutual satisfaction (something that is complicated but far from impossible in and of itself), the Israel-Palestine question moves to center stage. What becomes of Iranian support for the Palestinian cause, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the more meager support it offers to Hamas?

More than likely, this is why Obama, in his speech, put the two issues so closely together. While he didn’t specifically link the two, their proximity in the text was suggestive, and explained a bit of why he and Secretary of State John Kerry have put so much effort into rekindling talks between the two peoples. Obama understands, and he’s subtly communicating to Israel, that he needs to see a Palestinian state created, one which Iran can support, if there is to be sufficient warming of U.S.-Iran relations to enable a reasonable chance of resolving the nuclear issue.

This is precisely why Netanyahu is so alarmed by the prospect of a negotiated deal, as opposed to an Iranian surrender, on the nuclear issue. The prospect of a viable deal on Iran’s nuclear program will allow and encourage domestic and international pressure on Israel to make a deal, and, even if it is a deal remarkably favorable to Israel, Netanyahu does not want to engage in that political fight with his own party and the rest of his right-wing coalition. Much better to see Iran be forced, whether by sanctions or firepower, to give in to international demands. Moreover, those demands will be very different in the context of negotiations.

Obama, in his speech, recognized Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power. That affirmation, though self-evident, indicates a willingness to allow enrichment on Iranian soil, something Netanyahu adamantly opposes, but which, with sufficient transparency, will satisfy every other country in the world if the United States gives the program its blessing. In the context of an Iranian surrender, it is much more likely that enrichment programs could be transferred to a third country, like Russia.

So, Netanyahu has gone on an anti-Rouhani crusade. With the most extreme of neocon groups joining him, it is likely — if Netanyahu persists and if Rouhani does not sufficiently influence Western hearts and minds fast enough (which he likely can’t do without agitating his own right flank) — that other right-wing groups, followed by more centrist hawks, will soon add their voices to the anti-Rouhani chorus.

Pro-dialogue forces will have a tough task. The process simply can’t move too fast or it will careen off the tracks. But a slow process gives more opportunity for the hawks. Persistence in support of a rational approach will not be easy, but standing fast to support dialogue and the gradual easing of sanctions in exchange for gradually increasing transparency in Iran is the best and wisest option.