Not surprisingly, the artificial June 30 deadline set for concluding the P5&1 nuclear talks won’t be met.
The deadline backfired against the United States in part because the Obama administration has made it clear it wants a nuclear agreement more than Tehran seems to, giving the Iranians bargaining leverage they have used shrewdly.
The administration’s downplaying of the military option and frontloading of sanctions relief early in the interim agreement has reduced Iranian incentives to make concessions and rapidly reach an agreement. Iran instead has backed off from some key concessions it made in the April 2 Lausanne framework agreement.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week proclaimed a set of red lines that would preclude any acceptable nuclear deal. Some analysts have interpreted Khamenei’s pronouncement as a bargaining tactic, but it also could be the death knell for the talks.
The supreme leader’s intervention goes beyond a good cop/bad cop routine conveniently orchestrated for bargaining purposes. His intervention poses a broader problem: Any agreement signed by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani can be disregarded, undermined or rejected outright by the supreme leader, who holds veto power over every important decision made by the government.
This longstanding tension between Iran’s national interests and the ideological drive of its Islamist revolution, as interpreted by the supreme leader, is one reason Iran cannot be trusted to fulfill commitments made by the regime. President Rouhani guides the nuclear negotiations, but the nuclear weapons program actually is run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which reports directly to Khamenei.
Khamenei may be too rigidly opposed to the United States to permit an acceptable deal. As final arbiter of Iran’s most important policy questions, he can block all progress.
Washington may have to wait for Khamenei to be replaced by a new supreme leader to negotiate a viable nuclear agreement. The 75-year-old Khamenei reportedly has suffered from bad health, including at least one operation for prostate cancer.
Khamenei issued his red lines to minimize Iranian concessions, restrict the scope and intrusiveness of any inspection regime and maximize Iran’s future options on nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration claims the Lausanne framework agreement provides for an unprecedentedly intrusive inspection regime. But Iran already has walked away from some of those commitments. Moreover, Saddam Hussein’s regime was subject to much more intrusive inspection arrangements after the 1991 Gulf War but frequently blocked and circumvented inspections for 12 years until he was ousted in 2003 by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Several U.S. allies are alarmed by the deep concessions already made by the administration. Israel, which is within range of Iran’s ballistic missiles, has warned that it reserves the right to take military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure if the agreement fails to provide adequate safeguards against Iran attaining a nuclear capability.
Saudi Arabia, whose king pointedly boycotted the White House’s summit at Camp David in May as a sign of unhappiness with U.S. Iran policy, also is unhappy with the trajectory of the nuclear negotiations. Riyadh has demanded it receive every nuclear concession Iran does, and it has entered into negotiations with France to build civilian nuclear reactors, a possible first step towards a full-fledged nuclear weapons program.
Congress also is increasingly critical of the administration’s handling of the Iran talks. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter to the president earlier this month urging him to walk away if Iran does not agree to “anytime anywhere” inspections.
Even some former senior officials who were involved in formulating the administration’s policy on the Iran nuclear issue last week warned, in an open letter organized by the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, that the emerging deal “may fall short of meeting the administration’s own standard of a ‘good’ agreement.”
President Obama should heed these widespread calls for caution and rule out a rush to failure by signing a flawed and risky nuclear agreement. If Iran continues to drag its feet in the negotiations, then the United States should adjourn the talks until Tehran is willing to make the necessary concessions to guard against possible nuclear proliferation.
At a minimum, this would require dismantling substantial portions of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, particularly the Fordo and Natanz uranium enrichment facilities and Arak heavy water reactor; robust inspections on an “anytime anywhere” basis and real-time monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities; phased sanctions relief linked to Iranian compliance with its commitments; Iran coming clean on its weaponization efforts; and a clear and rapid process for re-imposing all sanctions if Iran is caught cheating.