Washington And Tehran Find That A Nuclear Breakthrough Is Hard To Do

In the lead-up to last week’s negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue, all signs seemed to herald the possibility of a historic breakthrough. Officials in both Washington and Tehran were careful to try to suppress irrational exuberance, but in private briefings and official media statements, they could not help but convey an air of anticipation.

After all, the talks were building upon a suddenly conducive context ushered in by the June election of a moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who has made it his mission to resolve the standoff and halt the deterioration of his country’s economy and its standing in the world. Since his election, and particularly since his September visit to New York, when he exchanged unprecedented telephone greetings with U.S. President Barack Obama, the long-deadlocked negotiating process on the nuclear issue has taken on a feverish pace.

An opening round last month in Geneva produced hope of steady progress, with technical talks and new Iranian cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. And the start to last week’s talks was serious enough to trigger travel by six foreign ministers — including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — who interrupted their agendas in order to hurry to Geneva to join Iran’s foreign minister and the European Union foreign policy chief in leading the talks on Friday and Saturday.

It seemed all that was left to do was to break out the celebratory champagne — non-alcoholic, of course, in deference to the Iranian theocratic sensitivities — and set up the podium for the signing ceremony. And then, just as suddenly, expectations deflated even more rapidly than they had risen, with the furious release of rumor and recriminations shared via Twitter by the pack of reporters and commentators jostling impatiently in a Geneva hotel lobby.

When the negotiations finally wound down in the early hours of a Swiss Sunday morning, the dignitaries emerged empty-handed. In the end, they came, they talked (and talked some more), but they could not conquer more than a dozen years of distrust that surrounds the issue and the decades of animosity that infects the U.S.-Iranian dynamic.

The Good News

The failure should be kept in perspective. After all, the latest Geneva round still represents the most serious, sustained dialogue between leading American and Iranian officials since the revolution. And while surely the six foreign ministers who rushed to Geneva would have preferred a photo-op finish complete with a signing ceremony, the engagement of all these principals in the diplomatic grunt work of trying to hammer out mutually acceptable terms should have a salutary impact on their state’s investment in an eventual outcome.

Despite the doom-sayers, diplomacy will go on. The incentives that all parties see for achieving a negotiated agreement remain just as powerful as ever, and the disincentives surrounding any possible alternative course continue to loom large even for skeptics of the process.

The time-out may be just what the embryonic process needs — a chance to buy time and space to work through the continuing contentious issues. The controversy among some of America’s allies over the terms proposed in the talks will help sell the deal within Iran, to the extent that it needs selling. And a protracted germination is a far more viable path to a sustainable solution than an agreement that is rushed to conclusion amidst a fragmenting political coalition.

The Unknowns

The denouement of nuclear diplomacy has provoked much speculation over the causes. Some suggest that the French balked at the specific provisions surrounding Iran’s construction of a heavy-water reactor in Arak; others cite the Israeli leadership’s fierce, public denunciations of the agreement even before the specifics had been announced. Still more recent explanations have sought to pin responsibility for the inability to clinch a deal on Tehran — “there was unity [among world powers], but Iran couldn’t take it,” explained Secretary Kerry today — and reports have suggested that the unwavering Iranian demand for an explicit acknowledgment of its right to enrich uranium stalled the progress toward a draft agreement. 

Absent confirmed details about the substance of the differences in Geneva, it is impossible to gauge which party, or what issue, proved the most formidable stumbling block. At the time, I have more questions than answers about what transpired, including the following:

If the issue of construction at the Arak reactor was in fact a primary outstanding difference between the sides, it seems strange that this could scuttle an otherwise settled deal. Arak is a justifiably enormous concern for the West, in part because once it is loaded with fuel as Iran’s plans suggest will take place within the next year, any military action to remove it would threaten massive civilian casualties. Still, the timeline for the reactor, as confirmed by the IAEA, appears to be sufficiently protracted to permit any irreversible decisions on this issue to be deferred to final stage of negotiations. Why did the question of Arak’s final construction — not its commissioning or operation, which Iran had apparently already signaled it would continue to defer — loom so large for both sides that it could not be settled even in marathon talks?
What should we make of the reports from Israel that the terms regarding sanctions relief proposed as part of the interim agreement evolved significantly over the course of the Geneva talks, to the point that they presaged the unraveling of the sanctions regime? If true, this would contradict the repeated assurances of U.S. officials, who in the lead-up to the talks insisted that they would not permit any relaxation or reversal of the fundamental architecture of the multilateral sanctions regime. The bulk of the early sanctions relief was reported to be comprised of limited access to overseas foreign exchange accounts that are currently inaccessible due to U.S. sanctions. Estimates in the media for this range from as low as $3b to as high as $30b, and the package may have also included relaxation of additional measures that would have symbolic value for Iranians but relatively modest financial or strategic significance. None of that would seem to constitute a significant dismantling of sanctions.

Finally, if language on the “right to enrich” was indeed the primary snag, why? The differences between Washington and Tehran on this issue have long been crystal clear, and it has always been just as obvious that those differences are eminently open to bridging through the creative use of diplomatic language. Is it possible that such formulations had not been crafted and agreed upon in prior sessions?

The Bad News

Whatever the primary causes of the failure, I think the Geneva meltdown has unfortunate implications for getting to an eventual yes on the nuclear issue. The passing of time will contract political space and this in turn may erode whatever combination of political capital and courage both sides were willing to invest in this deal. As both Washington and Tehran rush to reassure their skeptical constituencies, umbrage over reported concessions will complicate later rounds of dialogue.

Within Iran, any deal was always going to be sniped at and reinterpreted as circumstances required and/or allowed. Now there will be a draft to tinker with and undercut, and a renewed spate of aspersions from America to generate resistance. The tweets emanating from the account of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are bristling with Persian pride; in one missive today, he noted that “no amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva,” adding “but it can further erode confidence.” All this will make it harder for Iran to move significantly on terms before the next meeting on the 20th. 

The same holds true for the U.S. side. The lead American negotiator, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, was dispatched to Israel to debrief Washington’s most anxious ally, and her reassurances on holding the line on sanctions are echoing in Iran as well. Secretary Kerry similarly rushed from Geneva to a dinner in Abu Dhabi, where he sought to cast Iran in the role of spoiler. The dramatic developments in Geneva sparked a renewed eruption of activity on Capitol Hill, where a new round of sanctions on Iran that would effectively embargo on Iranian crude exports awaits only a predictably overwhelming approval in the Senate.

The latest talks may have wrapped up, but this chapter is not yet concluded. Another round of diplomacy will resume in Geneva, and all sides continue to voice confidence that a deal remains within reach. But the latest setback should focus the minds of all parties on what will be needed to see this through to a successful resolution. If an interim deal is proving this difficult to nail down, no one should be holding their breath on a final resolution. At minimum, all sides need to do a much better job of managing expectations to enable this to be a durable and ultimately successful process.

The stumbling of diplomacy need not lead inevitably or irrevocably to war. However, in the past, when Washington and/or Tehran have allowed a diplomatic opening to elapse, it has resulted in infinitely less advantageous diplomatic options for all parties. Had either Washington or Tehran proven as flexible and forward-leaning on the nuclear issue a decade ago as they do today, Iran would have far fewer centrifuges spinning and would have avoided the implosion of its economy and the erosion of its share in energy markets. In seeking to rebound from this week’s disappointing adjournment in Geneva, both sides would do well to appreciate the opportunity costs of persistent diplomatic breakdowns.