Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the UN General Assembly.(AP Photo/Mike Segar)
As the talks between Iran and the P5+1 get underway tomorrow, amid lots of promise and lots of talk about Iran’s new charm offensive and apparent readiness for a deal, it remains to be seen whether the administration of President Barack Obama has the diplomatic savvy and political clout to pull it off. Can Obama strike a deal with Iran that ignores and angers hardliners in Washington, including the Israel lobby, neoconservatives and hawks? Does Obama and his negotiating team—which, inexplicably, will not include Secretary of State John Kerry, even though Iran’s team will be led by its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif—understand Iran well enough that it can be sensitive to the requirements of President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif et al., especially since not a single top US official or diplomat has visited Iran, ever?
And the same can be said for Iran, too, which has its own influential hardliners and which also lacks a proper understanding of American politics and political culture, especially among Iran’s top clergy, few of whom have traveled outside of Iran or visited North America.
It doesn’t make one optimistic. The talks tomorrow, of course, are the start of a long journey, not the end of one. Iran, it appears, will advance an initial negotiating offer tomorrow, hopefully one designed to elicit a positive response from the P5+1. But there are countless stumbling blocks. Perhaps the biggest is how to design a set of confidence-building measures—called CBMs by acronym-happy diplomats—that allow Iran and the P5+1 to move toward a resolution that results in the deal that everyone knows is the win-win solution, if indeed a deal is to be struck. That deal, we’ve known for years, involves public recognition by the United States and its allies, and the rest of the P5+1, of Iran’s demand to retain the right to continue to enrich uranium, and to acquire and develop all of the components of a peaceful nuclear energy program. In exchange, it is believed by nearly all analysts, Iran will sign on to the Nonproliferation Treaty’s so-called Additional Protocol, submitting to much more intrusive and strict inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and, in addition, will accept limits on the degree to which it will enrich uranium and limits on the size of the stockpile it maintains.
There’s the deal. But the trick is getting there. A chief goal of Iran’s is an end to economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and an end to the parallel, but separate and unilateral, sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. It’s very unlikely—let’s say, there’s zero chance—that the United States will ease sanctions in return for statements, promises and other words on paper from Iran. On the other hand, there’s very, very little chance that Iran will make significant, unilateral concessions without getting in return absolute guarantees that sanctions will be removed. So, who goes first, who trusts whom, and how a step-by-step process can be put in place is what makes this hard.