Despite The Hiccup In Geneva, Iran Nuclear Talks Still On Track

The P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva late last week produced a lot of drama – foreign ministers unexpectedly clearing their schedules and flying in, reports of disunity among the P5+1 partners, post-midnight negotiating sessions, media speculation about a breakdown, and finger-pointing about whom to blame. One might have thought the negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue had hit a brick wall and were at the point of collapse.

The reality is more tame. Although expectations had been raised for an announcement of a deal before the end of the week, the difficulties of managing a highly complex negotiation involving several independent and strong-willed countries in a compressed period of time became apparent. So, while making very impressive progress in just a few days, the talks could not quite come to closure. There will be another opportunity to do so in a week’s time.

What Happened In Geneva

The bump in the road that apparently slowed last week’s momentum was the introduction by France of proposed modifications to the draft text being negotiated. The suggested changes were designed to strengthen the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, especially on the Arak heavy water reactor, and were consistent with the traditionally tough line Paris has taken in recent years on the Iran nuclear issue. They may also have reflected French pique at not having been adequately consulted in the preparation of the draft, which had already been worked extensively with the Iranian delegation.

Complicating the situation and heightening the drama was the French decision to go public with their reservations, a move sharply at variance with the discipline other governments have showed in keeping the talks confidential. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in town and told reporters that he could not accept the text under consideration and called the emerging deal a “fool’s game.”However, despite the impression that the French were posing fundamental objections to the emerging agreement and had thrown a monkey wrench into the proceedings, their proposed changes were relatively modest and aimed at improving an already well-designed agreement. Although some commentators suggested that the French proposals were essential to stopping progress on the Arak reactor, in fact measures had already been agreed that would significantly halt such progress. French ideas were useful additions, but they did not, as some reports have indicated, rectify serious shortcomings in the emerging agreement.

Reports of P5+1 disunity were overblown. The P5+1 delegations discussed the ideas that the French and other delegations put forward for modifying the draft text and decided to issue a revised version incorporating most of what Paris wanted. As Secretary Kerry stated publicly, the partner governments reached a full consensus on a somewhat revised draft agreement and presented the text to the Iranians.

The new text contained some elements the Iranians hadn’t seen before, which went somewhat beyond what they had earlier agreed to. They felt they were in no position to accept the revisions on the spot and said they would have to return to Tehran for internal deliberations.

So, despite the drama, the talks did not reach a conclusion for understandable reasons. French officials raised legitimate issues, although they could be faulted for doing so publicly. Its partners considered the French ideas and endorsed most of them. And the Iranians decided to take more time to consider some elements they had not previously seen. Hardly a crisis in the negotiations.

Indeed, according to Kerry, the parties are very close to agreement on an initial step that would effectively halt advances in Iran’s nuclear program for six months, during which time negotiations would proceed on the details of a final agreement. In exchange for constraining its program in an initial step, Iran would receive modest relief from sanctions that would leave the structure of the current sanctions regime intact and allow the P5+1 countries to retain plenty of leverage to get Iran to accept a final deal that meets their requirements.

Some finger-pointing followed the conclusion of the Geneva round. To show solidarity with France and counter concerns about disharmony in the group, Secretary Kerry stated publicly that the P5+1 had a unified proposal that Iran was unable to accept, omitting that the proposal had been modified from the version Iran had already seen. Foreign Minister Zarif, the fastest and most skillful Tweeter east of the Euphrates, shot back that Kerry’s “spin” could not conceal the fact that it was the P5+1 , and especially France, that had modified the text and undermined prospects for early conclusion of the deal.

Still, as blame games go, this one was rather mild and short-lived. Soon, statements were made by all sides that much progress had been achieved and that an agreement could hopefully be reached at the next round.

Dealing With Congress

So, despite the late-inning hiccup, the talks remain on track. The main question mark now is what happens away from the negotiating table – in the halls of Congress, in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and in Tehran.
Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry, and other administration officials have an uphill fight to convince the Congress to hold off on additional sanctions to give diplomacy some additional time to work. Key members are sincere — at least most of them — in believing that more sanctions will help produce a sound agreement rather than scuttle prospects for one. But what if the administration is right and they are wrong? What if new sanctions make it politically impossible for Iran to accept the kind of deal we need? What if new sanctions make Iran look like the reasonable party and us the intransigent one and this results in the erosion of international support for sanctions? What if the scuttling of the diplomatic option leaves us with only very unpalatable options for heading off an Iranian nuclear capability?

We don’t know how great the risks are that new sanctions will undermine negotiations. But there is clearly a risk. Members of Congress need to look down the road and consider what choices will have to be faced if their actions inadvertently undercut the best opportunity we’ve had in years for resolving the Iran nuclear issue peacefully.

Some members, wanting to be constructive, suggest that, instead of imposing new sanctions immediately, Congress should enact a law that provides for tough new sanctions but delays their imposition for several months to see if diplomacy succeeds. According to supporters, this approach would provide the necessary leverage without lowering the boom unless it becomes necessary. While this approach is neat in theory, Tehran is unlikely to grasp the nuance. Iranian opponents of a deal, and there are many, will argue that this would amount to negotiating with a gun to their heads, and they could succeed in reining in Iran’s negotiators and sabotaging any likelihood of a deal.

Members of Congress should keep in mind that existing sanctions are having a devastating impact on Iran’s economy and providing plenty of incentives for Iran to reach agreement on terms acceptable to us. Still harsher sanctions will not add decisively to that leverage, but they run the risk of undermining the talks and increasing the difficulty of sustaining broad international support for sanctions.

Addressing Israeli Concerns

Dealing effectively with Israel will be just as important for the administration as dealing effectively with the U.S. Congress. Indeed, the two are related. In the last couple of weeks, Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone from warning against pursuing a bad deal to railing publicly and vehemently against a specific deal that he has not yet seen and indeed does not yet exist, calling it a mistake of historic proportions. But his frontal assault on the emerging agreement seems based on huge misconceptions — for example, the assertion by Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz that the sanctions easing package being offered to Iran would be worth $40 billion, whereas the relief likely to be offered in a first-step agreement would actually be a very small fraction of that.

Netanyahu is no doubt motivated entirely by what he believes is best for the security of Israel. But the Israeli government should hold off on its anti-agreement full-court press until it has a better understanding of what the deal contains and its implications. And it should bear in mind that what it is currently doing not only risks a major rupture with Israel’s best friend; it also could eliminate the most promising non-military means of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, which would leave Israel with a very difficult choice at a time when the world would see Israel as having undercut negotiations and would not be expected to support any tough decisions Israeli leaders might feel compelled to make.

Instead of fighting an agreement per se, Israeli officials should work with the United States and its P5+1 partners to try to ensure that any first-step deal and any final-stage agreement protect Israeli interests. The shrill and alarmist rhetoric we’ve heard from Israeli officials of late does not provide confidence that Israel is prepared to work closely and constructively with the United States on an agreement that can serve what is undoubtedly the shared goal of the U.S. and Israeli governments — preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Not only American negotiators will face pressures in the period ahead. President Rouhani and his negotiating team will have to justify an emerging agreement to their critics at home. They may be tempted at this stage to dig in their heels, claim that it was the P5+1 and France that “moved the goalposts,” and stand pat at the next Geneva round. But that would be a mistake and would ensure a stalemate.

In reality, the modifications suggested by France and endorsed by the P5+1 group were not major and should not alter Tehran’s calculations of the merits of the emerging deal. Iran’s negotiators need to return to Geneva with the necessary flexibility to close on the few remaining issues. And if they need to justify their actions politically at home, they can hardly do better than to advertise Netanyahu’s characterization of the agreement as the “deal of the century for Iran,” which was a ridiculous statement but — who knows? — could play well in Tehran!

Time is not on anyone’s side. As long as sanctions are in effect — and they will remain in effect until an acceptable final deal is implemented — Iran’s economy will continue to deteriorate. And unless an initial deal is put in place soon to halt further advances in Iran’s nuclear program, Iran could take steps that would bring it much closer to having a rapid breakout capability. No less than Iran, the United States should want an early and sound deal.

But the longer it takes to get such a deal, the harder it will be to bring it to closure, as opponents of any negotiated solution mobilize and the necessary political support for a deal, in Washington and Tehran, erodes. Of course, neither the United States nor Iran will rush into a deal before it believes a deal is in hand that serves its interests. But neither should they believe that the opportunity for arriving at such a deal will stay open for long.