With less than a week to go before the nuclear negotiation’s June 30 deadline, Iran can’t seem to take yes for an answer. Despite tireless (some are saying desperate and counterproductive) efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to make a deal happen, Iran’s Supreme Leader appears to be doing his utmost to cause a breakdown. Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to state seven Iranian red lines:
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) June 24, 2015
The Ayatollah elaborated his conditions during a live broadcast on Iranian TV, but the heart of his remarks (as they’ve been translated so far) remains the same: “Freezing Iran’s Research and Development (R&D) for a long time like 10 or 12 years is not acceptable” and “All financial and economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. Congress or the U.S. government should be lifted immediately when we sign a nuclear agreement.”
So at the eleventh hour of the nuclear negotiations, we have reached the point where the Ayatollah’s demands become a bit like the menu in the old Monte Python sketch: “Spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam… baked beans are off.” All there is is spam—and by spam, he means sanctions relief.
So what is going on here? It may well be, as TAI editor Adam Garfinkle has predicted, that the Supreme Leader, for internal reasons, won’t take “yes” for an answer. In other words, this might be a list of poison-pill demands, designed to make the agreement unacceptable to the United States and/or its allies. (Incidentally, Garfinkle added that it would be a good thing for the U.S. if the Iranians to be seen to be the ones walking away. If the negotiations do indeed break down, these demands may make the Ayatollah look tough at home, but they will help the U.S. a lot in the global optics battle.)
But there are other possibilities, too. U.S. concessions have mounted with dizzying rapidity in recent weeks, and now insiders are telling Reuters that Secretary Kerry is oozing desperation out of desire to secure a personal legacy. (Last week, we noted that Western diplomats have been saying the same of the Administration writ large.) Do the Iranians think they have such a strong hand—or such a psychological advantage over the Administration—that they might realistically get a large portion of this just by asking? (“Well, you can’t have a two year timeline, but very well, what are a few inspections between friends.”)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, the Group of Five is far from united, with France (increasingly close to Saudi Arabia) staking out a hard line and promising to stick to it. Then there’s the “unseen players” we’ve previously discussed, who are not formally present at the negotiating tables, but whose approval (or at least acquiescence) will be necessary for the deal to stick: Congress, the Sunni Arabs led by Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
The Israelis and Saudis already view the negotiations as paving the path to an Iranian bomb; acceding to any of these demands is not likely to soften that view. Remember, the deal is only worth it if Israel doesn’t decide unilateral military action is its only remaining hope, or the Saudis don’t decide to go nuclear themselves. Meanwhile, due to Corker-Menendez, some of the Iranian demands (particularly the immediate lifting of “U.S. Congress” sanctions the day the deal is signed) are outright impossible under U.S. law. Furthermore, the overall spirit of these demands as a whole is so blatantly contrary to the purposes for which the U.S. entered into negotiations that it would likely make it very difficult for Congress, including Congressional Democrats, to sign off on a deal signed under them.
Iran has often benefited during the nuclear negotiations from its two-tier authority system—President and Supreme Leader—which among other things allows for deniability and good cop-bad cop ploys. Now the Ayatollah has stepped forward at almost the last minute to throw a whole bag of wrenches into the works. Much will depend on how the Administration and the other parties respond. One thing is for sure—we’re in for an interesting week.