Washington And The Art Of A Nuclear Deal With Iran

As American officials gather with their European, Russian and Chinese counterparts to map out the next steps in negotiations with Iran, a new hitch in the decade-plus-long quest to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has emerged unexpectedly thanks to signs of political moderation in Iran. Chalk it up to the Rouhani effect— as in Hassan Rouhani, the moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator who surprisingly won a plurality in Iran’s elections last month. His victory is already transforming the debate on strategies for curbing Iran’s nuclear program, sparking unmet expectations of new overtures from Washington and generating small, subversive fissures among the heretofore-unified international coalition.

Although it remains a relatively minor factor at present, this bubble of speculation surrounding the P5+1 strategy is precisely what unnerves some in Washington and other world capitals about the Rouhani victory, and rightfully so. After all, Rouhani has not yet taken office, nominated his cabinet, enacted a single policy proposal, or even wrested the nuclear portfolio from his rival for the presidency, hard-liner Saeed Jalili. And sensitive to the accusations of appeasement that Iranian hard-liners have used to disparage his achievements over the past eight years, Rouhani has pledged to maintain a firm rejection of one of the key demands contained in the United Nations Security Council resolutions, a suspension of uranium enrichment.

And yet already, the media, many analysts and even several former senior U.S. officials have publicly appealed for a more forward-leaning American approach to the nuclear negotiations— one that offers more in the way of sanctions-relief for the flailing Iranian economy or at least transcends the ineffectual incrementalism that has characterized the international posture in recent years. In public at least, American officials have rebuffed the appeals for new flexibility, insisting that the multilateral coalition has already tabled a reasonable proposal for Tehran’s consideration and that the ball now sits in Tehran’s court, not that of Washington.

I understand the Obama Administration’s desire to stick to its guns. Both Congress and America’s foremost allies in the region, particularly Israel, see the Rouhani win as a vindication of U.S.-led pressure and have argued for upping the ante rather than relaxing the penalties. To appear to soften now, on the basis of a leadership transition rather than a policy shift in Iran, might reinforce perceptions that Washington’s desire for deal outweighs Tehran’s readiness to bargain, and corrode any leverage at the negotiating table that the international community has amassed to date. Moreover, since the memory of past missteps on Iran haunts every American administration, Obama officials are understandably reluctant to venture down the path of courting moderates or conversely seeking to reward perceived reformers. Those attempts at maneuvering within Iran’s toxic domestic politics proved disastrous, and ultimately failed to generate the intended breakthroughs.

Still, while I appreciate the impulses that are constraining Washington, I also think it is a cop-out to refuse to even consider adjusting the approach to negotiations to try to take advantage of the undeniable changes in the Iranian political context. A similar sense of righteousness colored the Bush Administration’s refusal to join or even endorse the early European talks with Tehran over the nuclear program, and in the process ceded the last best opportunity to preclude Iran from entering into the business of an industrial-scale enrichment program. Holding out for the best deal with Iran has repeatedly resulted in lost ground for the international community.

In addition, with the prospect of real negotiators replacing the ideological automaton who has represented the Islamic Republic for the past six years, it would be utterly asinine to fail to take maximum advantage of the opportunity that will present itself sometime in September, when the nuclear talks are expected to resume. As Rouhani and several other candidates in the presidential election archly pointed out to Jalili during a televised debate in June, who has led Iran’s delegations to these talks since 2007, negotiations are not merely mechanisms for exchanging information and reading talking points. They offer avenues for testing an adversary, probing the possibilities and exploring a range of alternatives.

Perhaps someone needs to offer a similar crash course on getting to yes for the Obama Administration, including the unnamed senior U.S. official in a recent Los Angeles Times story who rejected the appeals for any new ideas at the next round of talks on the basis that “there was no need to float any such initiatives, because Iran is aware of all such avenues.” The senior official added that “quite frankly, those options are already on the table with the Iranians…. They know that.” If that is indeed the rationale for the administration’s rigidity, why bother sending a representative to the talks at all— after all, Iran is aware of the State Department’s contact details and can simply submit its responses via email or fax.

Let me be clear here— unlike some other analysts, I’m not advocating preemptive American giveaways, or even the promise of sanctions relief in the absence of meaningful Iranian measures to create durable, verifiable transparency in a nuclear program that has justifiably sparked concerns and suspicions among nearly every government on earth. I don’t even have a fixed view on one of the theological disputes among analysts of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, namely whether it is better to aim big and attempt to negotiate a more comprehensive deal or to continue to pursue incremental confidence-building measures. (However, as a student of Iranian politics, I have to point out that the two most relevant precedents— the hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war— Tehran seemed to prefer the comprehensive approach.)

What I do know is that when the country that you deem to be one of the world’s most urgent threats experiences a political tsunami, with its own hard-liners disavowing its negotiating strategy on national TV, a discussion about how best to take advantage of that opening seems warranted. And when the administration’s most highly-placed and widely-respected former officials on Iran— such as Robert Einhorn, whom we are now lucky to count as a colleague here at Brookings now— outline reasonable revisions of the current U.S. approach, it’s probably worth a close read.

Yes, it’s risky to try to deal with Tehran. These alternative approaches might not deliver, and the appearance of new flexibility from Washington might well encourage greater hedging among our more reluctant international partners, although this is inevitable regardless. Still, I’d rather test the options now rather than regret their loss once they become out of reach. And if the price of moderation in Iran is a little additional uncertainty surrounding U.S. strategy toward Tehran, that isn’t such a bad trade-off from the perspective of American interests and international security.