The Debate

Iran Nuclear Talks: Be Firm, But Realistic

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The Debate

Iran Nuclear Talks: Be Firm, But Realistic

The United States and Iran will both need to convince domestic critics that any nuclear agreement is a success.

In what is the first round of nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in more than six months, diplomats from the major powers seeking to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program finally sat down with their Iranian counterparts on Tuesday. News of a meeting was not itself an entirely surprising development, nor should it be seen as a breakthrough: over the past decade, there have been dozens of diplomatic meetings between Iran, the United States, the United Nations Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency and European powers.  The latest round of talks this week could, however, very well be the most important in terms of assessing which direction the crisis is headed in over the long term.

Unfortunately, for many of those in Washington who have been intimately involved in negotiations with the Iranians, the upcoming discussions are viewed through a familiar prism: that of skepticism, at best, and the inevitability of failure, at worst.

While the foreign policy establishment in Washington has long held the Islamic Republic in contempt, the U.S. Congress has proven, time and again, to be the more hawkish.  Indeed, it was Congress – not the Obama administration or the UN Security Council – that wrote and passed with overwhelming bipartisanship the most punishing economic sanctions that the Islamic Republic has ever experienced. The tough stance was made abundantly clear this past September, when 76 percent of the Senate signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to take on the Iranian nuclear stalemate with greater urgency, putting the Iranian government on notice that the “time for diplomacy is nearing its end.” 

Impatience with the Iran-P5+1 diplomatic process has not abated on Capitol Hill, despite a welcome and marked shift in Iranian rhetoric towards the international community with the resounding victory of pragmatist Hassan Rouhani at last summer’s Iranian presidential election. One week before the Iran-P5+1 negotiations were set to resume, Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ), a conservative member of the House of Representatives, introduced a tough new congressional resolution on the floor that – if adopted – would provide Obama with the legislative authority to use military force on Iranian nuclear targets in the event of a stall in diplomacy. 

The legislation, known as the Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act, lists a range of negative behavior that the Iranians have either sponsored, endorsed or carried out since 1979, and cites the passing of numerous UN Security Council resolutions demanding that Tehran cease its uranium enrichment program. The bill takes a hardline view on the diplomatic process, outlining a number of preconditions that the Iranians would have to meet – most of which are non-starters for Tehran – before it would be appropriate for the United States to negotiate directly with Rouhani’s administration.  In the bill’s own words, the act would “maximize the United States’ diplomatic influence to achieve…a negotiated settlement with the Government of Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” 

In fact, the bill would do the exact opposite, convincing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his security advisers that Washington is simply not interested in resolving the nuclear dispute diplomatically. That perception may not make sense from an American standpoint, but it makes perfect sense coming from a man like Khamenei, who has spent his entire tenure as Iran’s Supreme Leader protecting the Islamic Republic from the United States, which he sees as an ideological villain.

With so much mistrust between the United States and Iran, thinking that a nuclear agreement can be reached quickly is an exercise in fantasy. There is simply too much history among the two nations for diplomats in Washington and Tehran to trust one another’s intentions immediately or take one another at face value. 

Yet if there is anything that can be gleaned from Rouhani’s positive signals over the past month – speaking to the American people in numerous television interviews; writing a conciliatory op-ed in the Washington Post pressing for “constructive engagement”; taking a call from Obama on his way from the UN General Assembly meetings; repeatedly talking about transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency – it is that the veteran politician is more than willing to risk his political capital to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal.

For serious observers of the Iranian nuclear impasse, the solution has been relatively straightforward for more than a year. In exchange for Iran permanently stopping the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent quality, signing the Additional Protocol of the NPT, allowing full verification and inspection from IAEA inspectors, and limiting the amount of low-enriched uranium it is allowed to produce, the P5+1 would declare that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear program on its soil as well as the removal of the oil, banking and shipping sanctions that have severely weakened the country’s economic health. One day before the talks began, The New York Times quoted several conservative Iranian officials close to the Supreme Leader who appear to acknowledge that enrichment levels and the size of Tehran’s stockpile are fair game for negotiation.

Whether or not this week’s diplomacy is the start of a renewed diplomatic commitment from both sides will be determined as much by the ability of Obama and Rouhani to sell any agreement at home as by the proposals on the table. As vitally important as concessions are in sustaining the negotiating process, the entire initiative could very well fall apart if Western and Iranian diplomats are not able to weather what could be a harsh backlash from conservative factions in their own countries. 

For Rouhani, he will have to spin any concessions that he receives from the P5+1 as historic accomplishments if there is any possibility that Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Iranian Parliament will endorse it.  Much the same goes for Obama, who will need a skeptical Congress – including the president’s own Democratic allies – to accept that an agreement limiting the scope and size of Iran’s nuclear program is sufficiently durable to prevent them from breaking out towards a bomb.

Negotiations with Iran have never been easy before, and they certainly won’t be this week, notwithstanding the optimism currently swirling around Iran’s new president. But with a genuine effort by all parties, a realization from all sides that the ideal outcome is unattainable, and a recognition that domestic critics will need to be mollified for an agreement to be sustainable, there is a decent chance that the Iranian nuclear saga could be solved without further confrontation.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East researcher for Wikistrat, Inc., and a contributor to The Diplomat.