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Failed Iran Nuclear Talks May Erode Sanctions, Complicate Peace Process

Two aspects of the negotiating structure were working against the international community in the diplomacy surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue: the swift pace of progress in the talks and the round-robin format. Both made it harder for the P5+1, the coalition of world powers that has sought to negotiate with Iran, to remain unified in ranking their preferences and honing their strategy toward Iran, and allowed Iran more scope to exploit gaps between them. Although Catherine Ashton, the European Union high representative for foreign and security policy, was apparently present in every round with her P5+1 colleagues, there couldn’t have been much time to consult amongst the six governments, certainly not as a full group.

If unity amongst the P5+1 falters, and one of these powers is seen by others as sabotaging a deal, then the sanctions regime could start to crumble quickly. Israel and others have been worried that progress toward an interim deal would produce a weakening of the sanctions coalition, as states started to shift positions to seize first-mover advantages in doing business again with Iran. After these latest talks, though, it seems as though a breakdown in the sanctions coalition could be an outcome of failed talks too.

With respect to impact on other U.S. interests and investments in the Middle East, there’s obviously an interaction – especially in the U.S.-Israel relationship – between the Iran talks and the Middle East peace process. I explored this issue in a Brookings blog post when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Obama in the Oval Office in September 2013, noting that the two issues were likely to come to a head at about the same time.

For Netanyahu, Iran is the priority, and the Middle East peace process is a relative sideshow. So, if the United States and its partners make progress toward a deal with Iran, then that could present Netanyahu with the option — perhaps the need — to bargain (minimal) concessions on the Middle East peace process in exchange for a harder U.S. line on Iran. That’s one reason, I believe, that you saw Kerry pressing Israel on the Middle East peace process in a public interview, and Netanyahu almost panicky in his preemptive condemnation of a deal, on Friday — the connection between the two issues was working in Kerry’s favor.

But if the Iran talks don’t produce a real slowdown in Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons capability, then Netanyahu can argue to the U.S. (and domestically) that the looming danger and the possibility of a military strike preclude any thought of territorial concessions to the Palestinians. The US would doubtless argue to Israel that progress in the Middle East peace process would help solidify the regional coalition in case of any strike on Iran — but this might well ring hollow to Netanyahu, who believes that the Gulf Arabs are at least as mistrustful of the U.S. on Iran as he is.

In extremis, if he judges that the international coalition negotiating with Iran is cracking, or would allow Iran to continue its march toward nuclear weapons capability, Netanyahu could order an Israeli strike on Iran. This would force the US to sacrifice the rest of its agenda in the Middle East to support Israel in taking out Iran’s nuclear program and managing the consequences. But knowledgeable Israelis consistently prefer an American strike to an Israeli strike, because U.S. forces can do more damage to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Israelis also know, especially after the Congressional debate in September on authorizing the use of military force in Syria, that the worst thing they could do for their long-term alliance with Washington is to be seen by the American public as dragging the U.S. into a war that their own government sought to avoid.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama want a deal with Iran if they can get one on terms they think will resolve the threat. If he doesn’t trust that deal, Netanyahu can seek to scuttle it (as with the “step-one” deal this weekend) — but he will prefer for the Iran talks to fail in a way that does not lead to anyone blaming either Washington or Jerusalem for the breakdown. Any collapse in talks that can be pinned on the P5+1 threatens the strength and sustainability of the global sanctions regime. So Netanyahu’s best outcome, it seems, would be for the talks to fail because of Iran’s intransigence. In order to get there, he may have to tolerate more negotiations than he’d like.

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