A soft deadline for the Iranian nuclear talks and a moment of truth for Obama’s diplomacy

With a crucial milestone in the Iranian nuclear talks looming, the negotiations between Iran, the United States, and five other world powers have intensified. Unfortunately, however, so have the uncertainties.

The end-of-March target date for achieving a political framework was meant to be a soft deadline — a deliberately low hurdle that both sides would use to reassure their impatient domestic critics that a comprehensive deal was, in fact, achievable. But those same partisan pressures — amplified by escalating regional unrest — conspired to transform this purported ‘soft deadline’ into a moment of truth for the tortuous process and, by extension, for the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.

This latest deadline, like others in this process, was inevitably aspirational and elastic. Still, any failure to produce parameters for a credible bargain in this latest round of talks would reveal that the differences between the two sides are — for the moment, at least — fundamentally irreconcilable. That would add fuel to the already determined Republican efforts to sabotage the process, jeopardizing Obama’s historic Iran diplomacy, and the interim arrangements that have constrained Iran’s nuclear advances since November 2013.

Iran’s Shell Game

The last-minute suspense contravenes the drumbeat of relatively positively signals for much of the past month. Throughout February and early March, negotiators from both sides were quoted in the press suggesting that the central roadblock to a deal — the divergence in the two sides’ positions on Iran’s enrichment capabilities — had finally been overcome. The breakthrough can be credited to painstaking American efforts to devise a creative (and controversial) formula that would enable Tehran to retain a larger proportion of its centrifuges while also providing the international community with the requisite assurances that any Iranian race toward a bomb could be detected and deterred.

As the latest round of talks got underway, other sticking points remained, including the deal’s provisions for Iranian nuclear research and the timeline for sanctions relief. Still, solving the enrichment conundrum seemed to represent a major step forward in the long-drawn-out process.

But negotiating with Iran rarely follows a straight path, and as the talks on the political framework entered their final days, Tehran appeared to reverse its prior commitment to export the bulk of its low-enriched uranium stockpiles to Russia. On Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi was quoted in the Iranian press that “the export of stocks of enriched uranium is not in our program, and we do not intend to send them abroad. … There is no question of sending the stocks abroad.” His statements have since been echoed by other Iranian representatives.

If this reversal sticks, it could wreck the hard-fought blueprint for a deal. The ship-out provision represents a key component of the formula for prolonging Iran’s distance from nuclear weapons capability. More disturbingly, the late-stage shift echoes a persistent Iranian tactic throughout these difficult and protracted talks that should accentuate misgivings about its leadership’s intentions. Each time the two sides appeared to resolve one small element of the enrichment impasse, the Iranian negotiators would promptly reopen another aspect that previously appeared to have been resolved.

One of the chief American negotiators has compared the quest for a comprehensive agreement to trying to solve a Rubik’s cube, noting that “where one makes progress on one element may mean there’s more trade space on another element.” But for Iran, perhaps a more relevant analogy is to a shell game, where sleight of hand and a little showmanship bamboozle the unwitting observer.

An enduring gap exposes insufficient progress

American representatives tried to downplay the significance of Araghchi’s apparent backtracking. And given the investment of both sides in the negotiating process, it is hardly surprising that they will be able to extract an announcement of some kind, if only to justify the extended ministerial presence around the table in Switzerland. But the State Department spokesperson on Monday conceded that “we don’t have agreement with the Iranians on the stockpile issue.” This is a pivotal problem — it is, effectively, the heart of the matter that has been under contention in more than a dozen years of diplomacy to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Today’s preliminary deadline was explicitly intended to build confidence in the inevitability of a comprehensive deal — a diplomatic down payment to demonstrate that the balance of the outstanding issues could be resolved. Its currency is not simply words on a page, but rather the evidence of meaningful progress in devising the parameters of a comprehensive bargain. In other words, the specificity of any agreement matters far more than its actual announcement. An ambiguous and incomplete statement by the parties may offer an excuse to break out Champagne in Lausanne, but it is an inherently insufficient outcome.

And it must call into question the fundamental assumptions of the Obama administration’s high-stakes investment in its Iran diplomacy. The administration has doggedly pursued a deal with Iran as the centerpiece of its Middle East strategy. Obama’s outreach is not grounded an illusion of a new alliance or wholesale rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, as some Republicans and many in the region seem to believe.

Instead, the administration’s Iran diplomacy has been guided by two core convictions: first, that there is a rational, mutually-tolerable solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis that can be constructed through meticulous diplomacy and technical creativity. And that this solution would remove one of the most urgent and potentially destabilizing threats to the stability of the region and, importantly, to America’s friends and partners in the Middle East, especially Israel.

This is a perfectly logical hypothesis, and one that is especially appealing to a U.S. president who was elected twice by a profoundly war-weary America. But logical assumptions do not always fare well in the maelstrom that is the Middle East. It is entirely possible that the world’s differences with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions are simply not reconcilable — and that additional time or more innovative technical proposals or more congenial negotiators cannot alter that reality.

And given the developments in the region over the course of this 14-month process, it is equally possible — perhaps even likely — that even if a deal can be achieved, it will not provide a meaningful security payoff for the region. There are simply too many forces at play in the Middle East that will ensure its continuing destabilization: apocalyptic Islamism, sectarian frictions, the horrific Syrian civil war, a peace process without partners, the dysfunction of many Arab states, and a disproportionately young population for whom peace, prosperity, and political voice remain perennially out of reach.

Neither the gaps in the current deal or the holes in the administration’s logic should prompt an end to the diplomatic gambit with Iran. From where I sit, it makes sense to continue trying to fashion a deal. The two sides are closer than they were four months ago and perhaps a breakthrough is really right around the corner. But it would be reassuring to see that the president’s patience is not unlimited, and that he is prepared to contemplate the failure of his cherished Iran initiative.

The stakes for Iran remain as a high as they ever were — and perhaps even higher now that its bid for regional influence is being forcefully contested by an array of Arab states. As I wrote back in July, “In the absence of a resolution, Iran faces more of the same: isolation, deprivation, and billions of dollars sacrificed on the altar of more centrifuges.” While it is hardly the optimal outcome, Washington and the world can well afford to continue deterring Iran’s nuclear program with escalating economic pressure. Can the Islamic Republic really afford an indefinite standoff with the world? More importantly, can the Iranian people?