Why you should care
Nobody wants to see a nuclear Iran. The question is: What’s the best way to stop it?
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The day of reckoning for Iran and the West is here. Literally. After more than a year of shuttling between far-flung world capitals — Muscat, Vienna, Astana, Geneva — international negotiators have hit their self-imposed deadline of today for talks bent on convincing Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions. The question now: Will it?
A new, more diplomatic president in Iran, concerted outreach from the Obama White House and collaboration between Iran and the U.S. against the Islamic State have raised hopes. Perhaps, finally, Washington and Tehran can reach a detente, and Iran could give up on getting the bomb. But while world leaders may suggest today’s outcome ushers in a new era in relations, most experts think the reality is quite the opposite — and that, in fact, we’re looking at a whole lot more of the same headaches for the future.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the rest of the administration have all insisted they are working to finalize a comprehensive deal to denuclearize Iran, period. This comes on the heels of a deal, last January, in which Iran took some small steps to halt nuclear advancements while the United States served up some limited sanctions relief, on the premise of further talks. But while no one really expects a complete agreement, few believe that the sides or U.S. partners — including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China — want to leave the table. “I would be very surprised if the whole thing collapsed,” Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said last week at an event in D.C. An interim agreement that more or less extends the status quo could be reached: Iran continues its freeze on uranium enrichment and other nuclear development (that we know of, anyway) and, in exchange, the United States continues to dole out some limited relief from the vise of economic sanctions suffocating the Islamic Republic.
Anything Iran agrees to with the international community by today is likely to be incomplete, a shell, subject to interpretation.
“I think there’s a good sense of what they may come out with, some version of continued nuclear diplomacy … or else some sort of framework agreement” that lays out the parameters for continued negotiations, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Energy, Environment and Security Program director at the D.C. think tank Center for a New American Security, told OZY. A deal like that “gives us a good basis for beginning our negotiations,” Clawson said at the event at the Heritage Foundation, only half in jest.
Indeed, that’s when the hard work would really begin. Anything Iran agrees to with the international community by today is likely to be incomplete, a shell, subject to interpretation. The details will be the subject of plenty future haggling between Tehran’s negotiators and the West’s. Just what does it mean, in practice, for Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment — what level can it continue to enrich to and where should this uranium be held? How much access would international inspectors get to Iranian facilities to verify the regime — notorious for cheating — is actually living up to its promises? And which sanctions would the United States and its allies suspend, and for how long?
And then there would be the process of actually carrying this agreement out. That will entail a step-by-step approach in which each of Iran’s moves to dismantle a part of its program is rewarded with new economic opportunities. As one senior administraiton official said on a call with reporters last week, “We didn’t get into this circumstance in a year; we’re not going to resolve it in a year’s worth of activities by anybody.”
It’s not a great Plan B, mostly because it’s going to be hard to sustain. Physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told reporters on a conference call last week that the interim deal was helpful, but is now beginning to fray. Tehran, in particular, has raised concerns that it’s not living up to its end of the bargain. So just maintaining the existing mini-détente will require new steps on both sides to strengthen the existing arrangement.
But people back home, in both countries, may not be open to that, especially if there’s little progress on negotiations. Congress, in its new, more conservative form, will be more skeptical of granting any concessions to Tehran. Instead, it may want to ratchet up the U.S. sanctions, which Rosenberg says is likely, if not this year then when the new Congress takes over in January. Obama has promised to veto any new sanctions while the talks are going on, so the question then becomes whether Congress has the votes to override him. But Rosenberg says that even if the president’s veto stands, Congress’ actions will roil the talks. “It will set up a parallel aggressive response on the part of Iran,” she says.
In other words, things could spiral downward from diplomacy to animosity pretty quickly. “I don’t think (today) is the drop dead date for diplomacy,” she says. “But I’m not sure it extends too far after that.”