For the second time in six months, world leaders have pushed back the “final” deadline for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. As the New York Times reports:
Hours away from a Monday deadline for completing a new accord to curb Iran’s nuclear program, negotiators planned to extend talks for another seven months, a Western diplomat said. […]
American officials and their negotiating partners have yet to explain what progress might have been made and what gaps remain. President Obama said in a television interview on Sunday that there were still “significant” differences between the two sides. […]
As we’ve noted before, Iran set itself up for a win-win in these negotiations. Rather than making a risky deal, Iran has elected to maintain a status quo that stresses America’s alliances while maintaining its own, allows them to pocket sanctions relief, all while leaving open the possibility of a nuclear break-out.Despite the relentless official optimism which endlessly hyped the chances of a final deal, the most likely scenario was always a failure to agree followed by a commitment to extend the talks. For Western leaders, this kicks the can down the road. No Western leader really wants to face the possibility that the talks will fail, leaving very ugly choices on the table. For Iran, the new status quo is much better than what existed before the negotiations began. The sanctions are less onerous, many avenues of progress toward the development of a nuclear weapon remain open, and the hope of a deal continues to contribute to the West’s failure to engage with Iran’s deeply destabilizing quest for power across the Middle East.
Given that the Obama Administration and its European partners are willing to grasp at almost any straw to avoid the outright failure of the negotiations, and given that the Iranians closest to the Supreme Leader remain inflexibly opposed to the concessions that would make a deal possible, another extension of the negotiations was by far the most likely outcome. Continuing the negotiations is a much better deal for Iran than it is for the U.S., but the Obama Administration has little choice but to continue down this road—unless it is willing to rethink its broader Middle East policy.
Paradoxically, while stopping Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons without war remains a critical overall goal for the U.S. in the Middle East, a goal that the Obama Administration has made central to its regional vision since January 2009, the failure of American policy across the region and the splintering of U.S. alliances which the outreach to Iran has caused now makes a deal with Iran much harder to reach and much more expensive to pursue. The Iranian nuclear issue has become hopelessly entangled in the vicious politics of the Sunni-Shi’a war now engulfing Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
Iran has effectively held out the prospect of a nuclear deal to get the U.S. to step back from the regional competition, making it look to many Sunnis that the U.S. has tilted toward the Shi’a and dreams of a New Middle Eastern Order based on a U.S.-Iranian alliance that marginalizes the Sunni Arabs, the Turks, and the Israelis. Keeping the U.S. focused on the (unlikely) prospect of a nuclear deal while undermining U.S. alliances across the region as Iran and its proxies tighten their grip is exactly what Iran wants. The Obama Administration, despite occasional signs that it recognizes the trap, so far seems to lack the vision and decisiveness needed to break out of the current destructive impasse.
Under these circumstances, Iran would be happy to renew the temporary nuclear deal right up through the end of Obama’s second term.