HuffPost: Demanding What You Can’t Get: Obama’s Gamble with the Iran Talks in Vienna

The Huffington Post has published our latest piece, “Demanding What You Can’t Get: Obama’s Gamble with the Iran Talks in Vienna.”  We also append it below:

As nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna extend past yet another (largely U.S.-imposed) deadline, the dysfunctionality of the Obama administration’s approach becomes increasingly apparent.  Since April, when the parties announced a set of “parameters” for a final deal, senior administration officials have staked out public positions on the most important unresolved issues that, frankly, are inconsistent with what was agreed in April.  These include a U.S. demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime.

There has never been any serious prospect that these U.S. positions could actually provide bases for negotiated outcomes.  Take, for example, the Obama administration’s demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime against Iran.  Not only does Tehran object to this demand; Russia and China—like the United States, veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—do, too.

The Obama administration defined stark stances on the future of UN sanctions and some of the other outstanding issues ostensibly to rebut charges of “weakness” from domestic opponents and to deflect criticism from traditional U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that it is “appeasing” Iran.  But, if Obama and his team ultimately want to conclude a deal, they will, at some point, have to retreat from the diplomatically untenable positions they have so publicly assumed—thereby exposing themselves to even stronger political attacks.

This is the (entirely self-generated) dilemma currently looming over the Obama administration.  Going into this week, relative optimism was rising that the Vienna talks might be on the verge of producing a final deal.  Officials from participating governments say that compromises have been found over previously disputed aspects of lifting U.S., European, and most UN sanctions against Iran.  U.S. and Iranian negotiators have also been making progress toward resolving differences over the kinds of nuclear research that Iran will conduct while a final agreement is in effect.

Against this backdrop, the most difficult challenges facing the seven delegations in Vienna pertain to the drafting of a prospective UN Security Council resolution that would nullify previous resolutions authorizing international sanctions against Iran and formally start implementation of a final deal.  It is in this context that unrealistic U.S. demands to keep in place an open-ended arms embargo against Iran have become the main obstacle blocking conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear agreement.

There was considerable speculation, in Washington as well as in Vienna, that the Obama administration would be eager to finish negotiations before July 9.  (According to recently enacted U.S. law, if the administration had presented the text of a final nuclear agreement to Congress by July 9, Congress would have had thirty days to review it; from July 9 until September 7, the law gives Congress sixty days.)  Such speculation, however, overlooked the White House’s real calculation:  that, by modifying U.S. negotiating positions to permit agreement on terms of a new Security Council resolution—thus setting the stage to conclude a final deal this weak—the administration would receive more political criticism than if it appeared to “hang tough” and let July 9 pass.

This calculation explains why, according to officials from participating governments, the U.S position regarding the terms of a new Security Council resolution has, over the last few days, become less conducive to reaching a final agreement.  Moreover, the United States appears to be encouraging its British and French partners in the talks to define their own increasingly individuated positions on the issue.  As a result, P5+1 delegations are now spending more time in Vienna negotiating among themselves than with their Iranian counterparts.  When they do interact with Iranian representatives, their dialogue becomes, in effect, ever less a multilateral negotiation between the P5+1 and Iran and ever more a series of bilateral negotiations between Iran and various P5+1 states.

The Obama administration appears to calculate that it can posture in this way for some as yet unspecified period time, after which it can then quietly modify U.S. negotiating positions and reach a final agreement—claiming all the while that, by “hanging tough,” Washington persuaded Tehran and Moscow to take more “reasonable” stances.  This will be political theater with little connection to diplomatic reality.  But it is the narrative that Obama and company want to craft.

No doubt, Obama and his White House advisers think they are handling difficult domestic political dynamics with admirable adroitness.  But, in diplomatic terms, their approach assumes that other key players—including Iran—will wait indefinitely for Washington to get serious about closing a deal.  It also assumes that, if the process breaks down due to a U.S.-induced impasse over terms for a new Security Council resolution, the rest of the world will buy the Obama administration’s narrative that this is Iran and Russia’s fault.

Odds that these assumptions will prove false are greater than Obama and his team are ready to acknowledge—a reality that makes their course strategically irresponsible.  Fundamentally, this irresponsibility stems from failure to appreciate the full importance of an Iran nuclear deal—and, beyond that, of a broader realignment of U.S. relations with Tehran—to American interests, in the Middle East and globally.

The Obama administration continues to treat a prospective nuclear deal as what might be described as an asymmetric arms control agreement, whereby Iran gives up ambitions—regularly alleged by American politicians and just as regularly denied by Tehran—to develop nuclear weapons, and the United States gives up…well, not very much.  The administration has yet to treat a potential nuclear deal as American interests actually require:  that is, as a critical initial step in a broader process of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran—rapprochement as profound as the realignment of U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s.

Hopefully, the Obama administration will get through its political theater over a new Security Council resolution over the next few days and close a final nuclear agreement with Iran.  But it would be far better if the administration renounced this kind of theater entirely—and got down to the serious business of reformulating U.S.-Iranian relations.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  


Obama’s Failure to Make the Strategic Case for an Iran Nuclear Deal: The Leveretts on CNN and CNBC

The Iran nuclear talks may be getting close to some sort of conclusion in Vienna, but American political and policy elites remain, to an appallingly large extent, clueless as to what is really at stake in the negotiations.  (This was a significant theme yesterday in Hillary’s appearance on CNN, see here, and in Flynt’s appearance on CNBC, see here, to discuss the Vienna talks.)  And, while the headline from a recent NBC News poll notes that Americans favor an Iran nuclear deal by a “2 to 1” margin, in fact, the polls shows that a plurality of Americans say they don’t know what to think about a possible Iran nuclear deal.

These observations underscore a point that we have been making for some time:  President Obama has yet to make the case to his fellow Americans for why an Iran nuclear deal—and, beyond that, a potential realignment of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic—is not just profoundly in American interests, but is strategically imperative for the United States.

–This failure will almost certainly make it more difficult for Obama (and his successor) to implement a deal.

–Furthermore, this failure will severely circumscribe the strategic benefits that the United States can accrue from a deal.

At the moment, many American elites convey particular distress over the Obama administration’s inability simply to dictate the terms of a prospective United Nations Security Council resolution that would endorse a final nuclear agreement and, to help implement such an agreement, remove international sanctions previously authorized by the Council against the Islamic Republic.

–In its approach to drafting a new Security Council resolution, the Obama administration has been demanding that previously authorized limits on exports of conventional weapons and missile-related technology remain in place.  Iran, for its part, resists any text that would imply its “acceptance” of continuing international sanctions.  Moreover, Russia and China are not going along.

–Likewise, Moscow and Beijing have rejected the Obama administration’s demand that UN sanctions be lifted only for six months at a time, subject to renewal—renewal which the United States, on its own, could veto, thus realizing U.S. ambitions to be able to “snap” sanctions back into place without being blocked by Russia and China.

That the Obama administration has been pushing these positions reveals much of what is so fundamentally wrong with the U.S. approach to diplomacy with Iran.  As Flynt pointed out on CNBC, “This was an approach that not only were the Iranians going to object to it, but I don’t think the administration ever had a serious chance of getting consensus within the P5+1, among the permanent members of the Security Council…It was foolish, really, for the administration to take those positions on those issues.”  Yet these are the positions the administration took, and now it must either find a way to walk back from them or (foolishly) embrace diplomatic impasse.

Of course, this reflects weakness on Obama’s part—but not the sort of weakness for which neoconservatives and others constantly lambaste him.  As Hillary noted on CNN,

“We have tried [the interventionists’] version of strength—invading Iraq; invading Libya; occupying Afghanistan for more than a decade; arming, training, and funding various jihadis in Syria and all across the Middle East.  And all it has brought us is damage to ourselves.

The real strength would be, just like Nixon and Kissinger went to China and accepted the People’s Republic of China, we need to go to Tehran, as we wrote in our book, and make our peace with Iran.  It will help us.  It will resurrect our position in the Middle East and around the world.  And if we don’t, we will see ourselves continue to flail across the Middle East and around the world…

The Islamic Republic of Iran is here to stay, like the People’s Republic of China.  What we need to recognize is that rising Iran, just like rising China, is a strong, independent power.  And we need to work with them, not constantly try to bring them down and align with other countries like Saudi Arabia that get us into strategic disaster after strategic disaster.”

But that is precisely what Obama has been unwilling to do.  Could the United States still “walk away” from the process?  As Hillary said on CNN, “A decision by the United States to ‘walk away,’ to cut off talks with Iran would be just as strategically damaging, if not more so, to the United States than the decision to invade IraqIt would have enormously devastating consequences for the United States in the Middle East, keep us on a trajectory to get into one never-ending, unwinnable war after anotherAnd it would have repercussions for us globally, in economic terms and military terms.”

Stay tuned.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett