Domestic Politics and Diplomacy Toward Tehran: Congress and the Real Threat to an Iranian Nuclear Deal

Representatives of Iran, the United States and five other world powers convened last week for talks on Iran’s nuclear program, in what was at least the 18th negotiating session in as many months since the June 2013 election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. By now, there is a certain familiarity to the proceedings: diplomats, journalists and activists converge upon a European capital. Negotiators linger behind closed doors, emerging only to pose for silent, sunny photo opportunities and murmur hopeful ambiguities. Meetings beget future meetings, with all the players compliantly reprising their roles. Rumors of piecemeal progress are Tweeted and rehashed. The American secretary of state and Iran’s foreign minister even take picturesque walks in the park.

The flurry of excitement and activity around the process itself belies the unmistakable reality — the Iran nuclear negotiations have been stalemated for months. The regular powwows and eruption of bilateral bonhomie have failed to achieve their first and foremost goal — a comprehensive agreement that would conclusively end the impasse over Iran nuclear program.

Unfortunately, the state of play on the Iran nuclear issue is likely to get worse before it gets better. President Barack Obama defended the negotiations tonight in his annual State of the Union address, in an effort to convince the Republican-controlled Congress that legislation to restrict diplomacy or impose new sanctions on Iran would be a mistake. He threatened to veto new sanctions, warning Congress that imposing more penalties would torpedo diplomacy and that “it doesn’t make sense.”

Iran sanctions are always political catnip for the Hill, popular with most constituents and effectively cost-free, at least with respect to any Congressional objectives. And the administration’s Iran diplomacy has faced stiff opposition from many Republicans from the start, making the negotiations a perfectly predictable target for the ambitious new Republican majority in the Senate as well as the House.

Obama is mostly correct in his admonition about the dangers of new sanctions. Many in Congress are presumably unaware that the successful application of sanctions toward Tehran over the past decade came about through an unprecedented and inherently ephemeral set of circumstances — an Iranian leadership, personified by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rhetoric managed to outrage the world; the indignities of Iran’s domestic repression, laid bare for all to witness in the regime’s repression of the 2009 post-election protests; and the surge of unconventional supplies of oil and gas that lowered prices and made it possible to knock as much as 1.5 barrels of oil per day of Iranian exports from the market with relatively little impact on the global price of oil or the price that consumers pay at the pump. 

With the (meaningful) exception of the energy markets, the conditions that facilitated far-reaching global adherence to Iran’s economic isolation have dissipated. As a result, it is entirely conceivable that the rest of the world will prefer to revert to the status quo ante — a world where only Washington truly embraces economic penalties against Tehran and where the powerfully extra-territorial impact of U.S. sanctions generates frictions with allies and partners instead of a unified multilateral coalition against Iranian transgressions.

So the President is right to lay a marker now on sanctions, and warn Congress against actions that would undercut efforts toward a deal. He might have mentioned that the blame game is already well under way; for months, Iran’s diplomacy has been focused on ensuring that Washington is seen as the spoiler if and when the prospects for a deal truly go south. Congressional action and rhetoric will make or break that perception around the world.

Still, for now at least, the reality is that sanctions aren’t the real threat to the prospects for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. Rather, the primary obstacle to a deal rests where it always has — with the unwillingness of Iran’s ultimate authority, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to countenance any meaningful compromise on Iran’s production and stockpiles of enriched uranium.

Some advocates of diplomacy with Tehran have sought to equate the problems of domestic political opposition to diplomacy in each country, depicting a bilateral symmetry in hard-liner obstructionism. This is inaccurate and misleading. In the United States, opponents of compromise have used the democratic system to advance their position — to date, unsuccessfully. For now, they are really only background noise for an administration that is so committed to a diplomatic outcome that it will readily engage in largely illusory conflations of rhetorical opposition with war-mongering.

Meanwhile, in Iran, the opponents of compromise occupy the one position that matters, the office of the supreme leader. Equating his role as the country’s ultimate authority to that of Congressional Republicans who have thus far failed to avert or roll back a single aspect of the Obama administration’s diplomacy toward Tehran reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the relative balance of power in each system. And it does a profound disservice to those in Iran who have articulated, at some risk, the need for a different path.

The P5+1 has proffered endless creative permutations of a formula for addressing international concerns about Iran’s proximity to weapons capability. Their hope is to find one that might meet the ‘red lines’ articulated by Khamenei and other regime scions as essential to preserving Iran’s dignity — and its nuclear options. But to date, there has been no sustained progress in gaining Iranian buy-in for any such formulation, and Iran’s only known proposal entails leaving the entirety of its current capabilities for enrichment intact.

Inertia and tedium are practically the hallmarks of a process that has existed in various iterations for the past dozen years. During his own stint handling the nuclear portfolio from 2003 to 2005, Rouhani was seen as a competent but frustrating negotiator by his European interlocutors. And his successors only cemented the perception that Tehran was unwilling or incapable of advancing diplomatic solutions to the impasse, especially former lead negotiator Saeed Jalili, who raised long-winded vapidity to an art form.

This time around, however, expectations were infinitely higher, thanks to the explicit centrality of international reintegration to Rouhani’s original campaign messaging and the early momentum of his first months as president. After all, he won the presidency through a blunt campaign that promised to navigate the country out of isolation and reminded Iranians that they had as much right to prosperity as to nuclear achievements. His early months in office were marked by gung-ho rhetoric, landmark appointments, and small but telling diplomatic breakthroughs, including a historic conversation with the U.S. president in September 2013. 

Despite this strong start, the rosy — and mostly unrealistic — expectations for rapid progress on the nuclear issue and the possibilities for a broader breakthrough have not been realized. The awkward genius of the November 2013 interim accord is that it has worked just well enough to command continuing adherence by the parties, but not well enough to facilitate progress toward a more permanent solution.

This is not the way it was supposed to work. Many champions of diplomacy saw the interim deal as an implicit down payment on the long-term game; as Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor, long-time intelligence analyst, and Brookings non-resident senior fellow, wrote recently:

“It is almost inconceivable that Ayatollah Khamenei would have made it possible for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif to have gone as far as they have already gone, and to sign Iran up to the commitments they already have made in the preliminary agreement reached in late 2013, if he did not genuinely share the objective of completing the negotiations and reaching a final agreement.”

I understand the argument that Rouhani’s election and the diplomatic progress that followed in its wake seemed to imply Iran’s readiness to resolve the nuclear issue; I practically pioneered it, writing on the night of his June 2013 election that “we are witnessing a shift of historic significance in Iran.” But the presumption of path dependency is a pretty weak basis for asserting momentum where clearly none exists. There are indeed many reasons why Iran would have signed an interim nuclear agreement without a firm commitment to making subsequent concessions. And even if Tehran was inclined to settle the dispute in mid-to-late 2013, it is perfectly reasonable that developments since that time — the rise of ISIS and the intensification of the regional power struggle, for starters — may have altered that calculation in the ensuing 18 months.

What will alter this calculation in a positive fashion? On sanctions, I agree with President Obama; there seems little prospect that the threat of new economic pressure will have a constructive impact on a political system led by paranoid, conspiratorial clerics who have the capacity to deflect the pain of international isolation away from their own interests and directly onto an already suffering population. 

However, ultimately, Obama’s Congressional critics are not wrong to express impatience with the repeated extensions of the negotiations in the absence of meaningful evidence that Tehran is truly willing to compromise on the core issues at stake. The itchy sanction trigger finger reflects more than crass partisan political imperatives, but a fundamental recognition that the current conditions have not proven ripe for an agreement.

What will overcome the diplomatic stalemate is not simply more time or “space to let these negotiations work,” as White House chief of staff Denis McDonough implored before the speech, but rather a shift in Iran’s readiness to compromise on its nuclear fuel and stockpiles. That shift can only be undertaken by Iranians, within the ruling system, who succeed in persuading its inner circle that the revolution can only be preserved via compromise made in the name of Iran’s national interests.

It is, in fact, a tougher case to make than Obama’s efforts to wangle recalcitrant Republicans. But it has happened before — a quarter-century ago, with the end of the Islamic Republic’s war with Iraq — and it may just be happening again today, as suggested by an extraordinary series of exchanges in recent weeks among Iran’s most prominent politicians. More on the state of play on the nuclear diplomacy within Iran here on Markaz in the days to come.