Will Obama Strike a Nuclear Deal With Iran?

Will Obama Strike a Nuclear Deal With Iran?

Will Obama Strike a Nuclear Deal With Iran?

It’s looking increasingly likely—but there’s reason to fear the White House will overplay its hand.


Despite near-apocalyptic objections from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, strong opposition from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf kingdoms, and criticism within the United States from neoconservatives, hawks and many members of Congress—and despite last-minute sabotage from France during the negotiating round that concluded on November 9 in Geneva—the United States, Iran and the rest of the P5+1 group of world powers are likely to strike an interim agreement over Iran's nuclear program. That's because President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who took office in August with a mandate to end Tehran's isolation and strike a deal on the program, see an accord as in both countries' interests.

The interim accord will give Iran modest but significant relief from economic sanctions in exchange for its agreement to freeze parts of its program, with each side claiming a win and pointing to the accord as "confidence-building measures" on the way to a broader, final agreement six months or so from now. According to diplomats, Iran-watchers and foreign policy experts who spoke with The Nation, that more comprehensive deal must include an end to most, if not all, sanctions against Iran, while Iran must agree to far more intrusive international oversight of its program; a freeze on its production of medium-enriched uranium; the transformation of that uranium into material that will be hard to convert to weapons-grade uranium; and a halt to work on its heavy-water reactor in Arak, which could be used to produce plutonium and provide a path to a nuclear weapon.

A central part of that final deal would allow Iran to continue to produce low-enriched uranium for use as fuel in a nuclear reactor. That's critical, because while Iran insists that under no circumstances will it abandon its "right to enrich" under the terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which it has signed, the United States says it does not recognize that right. But US diplomats and other experts believe the two sides can finesse that fundamental disagreement, with the United States simply agreeing, as part of the deal, to allow Iran to continue to produce fuel-grade uranium without Washington agreeing that it means Iran has the "right" to enrich. And Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has now said that Iran will not insist that its right to enrich be formally recognized.

But getting to a final accord in 2014 will be tricky, and there is reason to fear that Obama's negotiating team in Geneva may overplay its hand, in part because so few of the administration's diplomats have experience dealing with Iran and because the White House may overestimate how desperate Iran is for a deal. Finally, it remains to be seen if Obama has the courage to face down not only Congress and the Israel lobby but also Middle East governments, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, intent on spoiling any US-Iran détente.

To begin with, the Obama administration hasn't even started to prepare Americans for a deal. For decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been demonized as a state sponsor of terror, and the White House hasn't done anything to get the public ready for handshakes and inked documents. "They're not laying the groundwork for that," says Flynt Leverett, a professor at Penn State University and co-author of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic of Iran. "There's no real effort to frame this as a positive achievement for American foreign policy." So, a major public relations effort ought to start right away, because absent one, the domestic opponents of a deal might be able to stampede public opinion in the opposite direction.

But there's another, bigger obstacle.

For thirty years, the American stable of diplomats who are familiar with Iran, fluent in Persian and experienced in traveling inside Iran has shrunk to nearly zero. In contrast, points out William Luers, a former US diplomat and professor at Columbia University, who heads the Iran Project and who has been involved in informal talks with Iranian officials for a decade, the Iranian delegation at Geneva is made up of people with PhDs from US and British universities who have vast experience in the West. "They know us well," he says. "The bilateral negotiations are conducted in English." Many Iran-watchers, like Luers, believe that the Obama administration thinks economic sanctions have so devastated Iran's economy that Tehran will be compelled to go along with whatever Washington demands. "The administration may assume that we've got them where we want them, and that they're hurting so bad that they're willing to accept anything. I don't think that's going to work," he says.

Certainly Iran wants sanctions lifted. But, as Rouhani and other top Iranian officials have repeatedly said, Tehran will not capitulate if the United States demands, say, complete cessation of enrichment—as Israel and many hawks in Congress insist.

One of the few former US officials who actually understand Iran and speak Persian fluently is John Limbert, who was held hostage from November 1979 to January 1981 when an Iranian mob seized the US embassy in Tehran. Limbert, author of Negotiating With Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History, was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in 2009. But, frustrated, he resigned just nine months later. Limbert is worried that the Obama administration might mishandle the chance to strike a deal. And he thinks the administration might be overestimating the role of sanctions in affecting Iran's willingness to talk.

One problem, says Limbert, is "thinking we know more about the other side than we do."

"I've heard claims that Iran is on the ropes because of sanctions, and that Rouhani was elected because of the effect of sanctions on their economy. I've not seen the evidence for that," he says. "The administration is making the assumption that Iranians are ready to give up, to make major concessions to get the sanctions lifted. On what basis do you say that?" When he was in government, Limbert says, the discussions were far too heavily weighted on the effect of sanctions. "In meetings on Iran, it was all sanctions, all the time, as opposed to what was happening inside Iran, and how Iran might react to this move or that move."

Of course, Iran has its own hardliners who will oppose any deal with the United States on ideological grounds. (Asked about the Tea Party types who might mobilize against Obama over Iran, Foreign Minister Zarif said, "You said we don't have a Tea Party? I wish you were right.") But so far, Rouhani and Zarif have the explicit backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Getting to yes with Tehran won't be a cakewalk, but there's a deal to be had. And it will require assertive leadership from Obama to make it work.

Last month, Bob Dreyfuss analyzed the Israel-Saudi influence on the US-Iran talks.

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