Middle East Notes and Comment: Three Negotiations on Iran

Reaching a comprehensive deal with Iran over the country’s nuclear program will be tough for President Obama. Even successful bilateral negotiations would only be the first step, because in fact, his negotiations with Iran are actually three sets of interconnected negotiations. One set is with Iran, one is with Congress, and the third is with partners in the P5+1. Succeeding with the Iranians without succeeding on the other two fronts would leave the United States and its allies far less secure than if Obama had not negotiated at all.

For all of the focus on the complexity of negotiating with the Iranians, those negotiations are relatively straightforward. The president’s emissaries are in direct discussions with Iranian government officials, and the parameters of the discussions are known. Iran is seeking sanctions relief, and the United States—with its allies—is seeking verifiable guarantees that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. Reasonable people can differ about what is required to gain that confidence: a complete halt to domestic uranium enrichment, conversion of existing stockpiles of enriched uranium, a robust inspection regime, and so on. Reasonable people can also differ over what kinds of sanctions relief are appropriate for what Iranian actions. Regardless, each side agrees what the negotiations are about, and each side knows what it wants from the other.

The Obama administration’s negotiations with Congress are far more complicated. On one level, it is not precisely clear what role Congress will need to play. Under national interest provisions in most of the sanctions legislation, the president retains the authority to waive sanctions for fixed periods of time. The president also has some discretion over how his administration enforces sanctions, giving him additional maneuvering room. Presumably, however, Iranian negotiators will want some assurance that permanent concessions on their side will yield permanent concessions on the U.S. side, and the president will not be able to provide that assurance merely with 120-day presidential waivers. Iran will also be looking for signs that Congress will not seek to impose additional sanctions, which it could do over a presidential veto.

Several forces drive Congress. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s critique that the deal is too permissive to the Iranians resonates with many, and others seek to check the president’s supposed instinct to compromise with enemies. Some Congressional leaders insist that their firm position gives the president leverage in negotiations with Iran, as the president can argue that some Iranian terms are unworkable because they would be unacceptable to Congress. But any such argument relies on the premise that there are conditions under which Congress would come along. To succeed at all with Iran, Iranians have to believe Congressional acquiescence is possible.

Yet, that is not the president’s biggest challenge with Congress. The scope of Iranian malfeasance is broad and deep. It extends to supporting Foreign Terrorist Organizations around the world, abetting atrocities in Syria, suppressing human rights in Iran, threatening Israel’s destruction, and on and on. Many on both sides of the aisle in Congress will seek opportunities to press Iran on these other issues before lifting even a small range of sanctions, based on a belief that the United States possesses maximum leverage over Tehran in the moment before a nuclear agreement.

It is at that moment that the P5+1 negotiations become problematic. While few approve of Iranian misbehavior, there is little unanimity that the nuclear negotiations are the place to address it. China and Russia have distinctive views in this regard, and the sentiment runs high in Germany that the way to change nations’ behavior is through engagement rather than isolation. Should Congress insist on addressing a broad range of issues rather than a narrow one, and should it insist on non-proliferation measures so extreme that they seem intended to ensure Iranian rejection, world powers may conclude that the United States is not only seeking to move the goalposts, it is also seeking to change their size and shape. In that case, at least some are likely to say that Iran is being reasonable and the United States unreasonable, and they will have nothing of it. With an Iranian president who is far shrewder than his predecessor, and a foreign minister who seems to enjoy great latitude to build confidence among his interlocutors, this risk has grown considerably in the last six months.

So far, sanctions on Iran have proven far more durable and far more effective than many expected. International financial restrictions, in particular, have won widespread adherence, sharply hindering Iranians’ access to global capital. A crack in adherence to those regulations brought on by a crack in P5+1 solidarity would be devastating. If China and Russia were to drop away from the sanctions regime, and India were to join them, smaller countries would certainly jump in the breach, and there would be no good option left to the United States. After recriminations, the outcome would be a United States that is much more diplomatically isolated, an Iran that is much less isolated—diplomatically and economically—and an Iranian nuclear program that is far less encumbered.

The Obama administration has sometimes suggested that, at the end of the current six-month agreement, the American public and Congress will face three choices: a deal that—perhaps imperfectly—constrains the Iranian nuclear program; no deal, meaning that the Iranian nuclear program is wholly unconstrained; or a war that seeks to constrain the Iranian nuclear program by force. The intended point, clearly, is to show the desirability of a deal.

But there are two other possibilities. One is another interim deal. Contrary to popular belief, this would not represent a failure of negotiations, and it may be the best way to sustain a broad coalition while keeping the Iranian program constrained. Even without final resolution, keeping the coalition together and the Iranian program under tight controls would represent a victory.

The other possibility is more alarming. Broad efforts to “improve” a deal may alienate allies and partners and make the Iranians look like the reasonable party. That would represent a defeat—not so much because the Iranians wouldn’t agree, but because the rest of the world would refuse any longer to stand by the United States in holding Iran accountable. And then Iran would be unconstrained.

Cutting a deal with Iran just isn’t enough. U.S. interests demand that the president simultaneously cut deals with Congress and U.S. partners, too.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program