As negotiators head to Vienna for the final push on nailing down a nuclear agreement with Iran, observers are upping the odds for a deal, with one former senior negotiator estimating them to be at 60–40, Reuters reports. Another Western official quoted said, “I think there will be an agreement because the two most important players need it.” But the sense in which the official meant “need it”—and the overall reason why diplomats are confident—is troubling:
For Obama, detente with Iran and another long-term U.S. foe, Cuba, may be the only major foreign policy achievements within reach, with the Israel-Palestinian peace process frozen and wars raging in Syria and Iraq.
“There will be a deal, Americans need it more than we do. This deal will help both countries,” said an Iranian official, who put the chances of a final deal at 70 percent.
When Iran came to the negotiating table, it was driven there by dire economic straits. The United States was brought there by security concerns, but the balance of need (dire vs. concerning) lay to the advantage of the U.S. Given that, the shift to a perceived legacy need—now widely shared by observers—represents an astonishing shift in negotiating strength.
This, unfortunately, not surprising: we’ve noted for a while that the Administration has had a frankly backward approach to how to use leverage throughout these negotiations—and that a successful Iran deal would be perhaps the only bright spot on the President’s otherwise dismal foreign policy record. Recently, the Administration’s desperation to get a deal done has become painfully obvious. But while unsurprising, it is worrying—particularly when we’ve just caved on Iran’s disclosure of previous nuclear activities (thus foregoing the traditional baseline by which the IAEA measures compliance with arms control agreements), and when the Iranians are now said to be resisting “specifying details on the technical limits on its future nuclear work.”
Anything is still possible. But not only does a story like this indicate we’re negotiating from a sub-optimal position in Geneva; it may make it harder to sell a deal, if one is obtained, in D.C. For any deal to stick, the President will need to convince the skeptical-but-persuadable center, both in Congress and in the public at large, that he got the best possible deal, and that the Iranians will uphold their end. And the impression that we went in desperate for a “legacy” makes that harder to do.