Election Year = No Iran Deal

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Central Asia

Election Year = No Iran Deal

There are increasing signs that a breakthrough over Iran’s nuclear program could be in reach. But don’t expect Barack Obama to clutch at it yet.

Since the conclusion of a first round of talks between Iran and major world powers, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, in Istanbul on April 13 to 14, both Iran and the United States have sent signals that they’re prepared for a deal. But don’t expect anything concrete to emerge when the parties sit down again to talk in Baghdad on May 23.

Although the leadership in both Tehran and Washington has cooled confrontational rhetoric and both appear to desire an agreement, in both countries politics at home is likely to prevent either side from making the concessions needed to unblock the talks, according to several analysts in Washington.

“My guess is that they will slow-walk this,” says David Mack, an experienced Middle East hand who served as former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, in an interview with The Diplomat. “Neither the Iranian side nor the American side want to come to a deal real soon. I don't think a deal would be real good for domestic politics for either one.”

Over the last several weeks, officials on both sides have edged closer to public recognition of what it will take to reach an agreement: acceptance of Iran’s right, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium on its own soil to 5 percent purity, or fuel grade, in exchange for a halt by Iran of its current enrichment to 20 percent, ostensibly for its medical research reactor, the export of existing 20 percent stockpiles for reprocessing, and a rigorous regime of inspections as mandated by the NPT’s Additional Protocol, aimed at ensuring that Iran does not produce uranium enriched to 90 percent, or weapons grade.

For months, the United States has quietly been letting it be known that accepting enrichment by Iran might be in the cards. In an April 17 interview, Gary Samore, Obama’s chief adviser on arms control, said: “We recognize that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program once it has addressed concerns about its nuclear activities. What we haven't done is specify exactly what the elements of that nuclear energy program would be. And that is a matter for negotiation.” Then, speaking anonymously, a senior U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that the United States is willing to put uranium enrichment on the table and that “maybe we can get there, potentially.” The official made it clear that there’s a consensus developing within the Obama administration that calls for Iran to halt or suspend all enrichment are a nonstarter.

Meanwhile, various Iranian officials, including some notably close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, have expressed optimism about the current round of talks. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi – who, according to Washington scuttlebutt, could be Khamenei’s choice to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2013 – called the current talks “a turning point in the Iran-West dialogue” and suggested that Tehran might be willing to revise its nuclear policy. As reported by Al-Monitor, other senior Iranians close to Khamenei expressed similarly positive sentiments, including Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Khamenei and member of a powerful political clan, and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the leader of the all-powerful Guardian Council, which appoints the supreme leader and controls access to Iranian politics. Jannati called the recent talks a “good achievement” and noted, with some exaggeration, that the West now “accepted that uranium enrichment is Iran’s right.”

For the Iranians, a minimum goal in the May 23 talks and beyond is the removal of economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council and by the United States and other world powers, or at least the suspension of planned, additional sanctions later this year. “At the least, our expectation is the lifting of sanctions," said Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, an adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

In July, the European Union is set to begin a total embargo on Iranian oil purchases by EU member states. But at least one key observer in Washington suggests that eventually the world powers will likely put sanctions relief on the table. “Iran [will] likely seek significant quid pro quos from the major powers,” writes Thomas R. Pickering, a former U.S. official who has taken part in so-called Track Two diplomacy with Iranian officials in recent years. “These might include freezing of some sanctions, most likely those on the Central Bank of Iran and those that call for a July cut-off of significant European purchases of Iranian crude oil and gas.”

But if the stage is being set for a deal, many analysts in Washington don’t think that the time is yet ripe. “The political environment here isn’t conducive to any kind of step-by-step process that might involve the lifting of sanctions,” says Brian Katulis, a Middle East analyst with the Center for American Progress. “Even if the Baghdad talks open a door, I don’t think there’s political space to strike a deal before the elections.” In particular, he points out, the Obama administration has been hard-pressed to persuade even its Democratic allies in Congress to go along with any softening in the approach toward Iran. Katulis suggests that a “failsafe option” might be the suspension of the planned, additional EU sanctions, but even that might be difficult at this stage of the negotiations.

What happens next? “I’m convinced that both side will show a lot of sophistication in Baghdad this month,” says Mack. “They’ll try to demonstrate a willingness to compromise, to keep the ball rolling.” At the very least, he says, both sides are determined to avoid something worse than a stalemate. While the Iranians want to ease the sanctions burden, “On the American side, we’re concerned about what Iran might to is they’re backed into a corner.” A crisis in the Persian Gulf could send the price of oil skyrocketing, which wouldn’t help Obama’s reelection effort, he says.

But it’s that very election issue that is likely to paralyze the talks until sometime in 2013 – when Iran, then, will be preparing for its own presidential campaign.