The drama of the U.S. (now P5+1) negotiations with Iran over its nuclear infrastructure has been ongoing now for more than a dozen years, if we date the inception point to 2002, when some dissidents leaked information about Iran’s nuclear weapons work. (They did not tell the U.S. Government much of anything it did not already know, but never mind.) Most of this period really had to do with pre-negotiation maneuvering and indirect pressures—like building up the sanctions regime and getting a series of UN Security Council resolutions on our part, and the Iranians rushing to master the fuel cycle on their part.
The current stage of negotiations goes back only about twenty months, but it’s twenty months that seem sometimes like twenty years. That’s partly because every time we approach a deadline both sides swear up and down is real and will not be extended, it gets extended. Lucy is everywhere; no one ever gets to kick the football.
That’s what happened again Tuesday, July 7, following the extension from June 30. All that follows the framework agreement from April, but in point of fact that was just an extension too, since that supposed agreement was never put in a written form that both sides attested to and signed. All we had from April was Wendy Sherman’s whiteboard, and within days after that supposed agreement there emerged accounts from Teheran, Washington, and elsewhere of what it contained and what it did not that didn’t add up to anything resembling an actual agreement. The starting point for the April affair was the November 2014 extension of the only actual agreement that has been reached so far, which dates to November 24, 2013.
Where do we stand now? Both sides in recent days have played down the significance of a deadline. The Iranian delegation claims not to have been cognizant in recent weeks of a serious one, despite having earlier sworn not to go beyond July 7. Secretary Kerry said more or less the same thing, after having sanctified the earlier deadline, too. What the agreement is, he said, is more important than when it is. One is reminded of Lenin, who reportedly said that promises are like piecrusts, made to be broken. So that now goes for negotiating deadlines, too.
What is really going on here? It’s hard to say, since words do not mean what they normally mean when uttered by Iranian and American diplomats (or by some Supreme Court Justices, but never mind that for now). The best bet is that the U.S. side, having made by far the most and the most important concessions in the past twenty months, used talk about hard deadlines to get the Iranian side to finally make up its mind, which boils down to getting Ayatollah Khamenei to make up his mind. That’s how the November 2013 deal happened; we issued an ultimatum, the Iranians apparently thought we would actually walk away, and they came back with the concessions that made the deal possible. According to all reputable sources, too, they have kept their word, and doing so has frozen part of their program. They got some sanctions relief at the time, true; but the Iranians did pay a price to get and keep an agreement, leading to the reasonable supposition in Washington that perhaps a more significant post-interim, if not really “final”, deal can also be had.
But this time it didn’t work, or at least it hasn’t worked yet. The Iranians did not deliver the goods, and we did not walk. That leaves the impression that we want a deal more than the Iranians, and/or that we are mindful that it just takes the Iranian system longer to come to a collective conclusion. We’re prepared to be patient because, as U.S. officials repeatedly say, it’s better to deal with this problem through diplomacy than it is though force (which, just by the way, conveys the false impression that between sanctions and bombs we have no options). Besides, as the President and those close to him have also made clear, we are by far the stronger power, so we can afford to go the extra mile, both by way of concessions and by way of time. We keep “all options on the table”, an idiomatic expression meaning that we will use force to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon if it comes to that—and no concessions we make will really change that reality. We lose little through the exercise of our own patience, and, as already noted, the Iranian program in the meantime is somewhat constrained, as is its sanctioned economy in the face of burgeoning popular expectations of imminent relief.
There is, however, another way to look at this. Since April the Iranians, mainly though the words of the Supreme Leader himself, have made demands clearly incompatible with the April agreement-that-was-not-an-agreement. Some of these have to do with transparency/verification issues, some with the limits on Iranian research and development, some with the timing of sanctions relief, and, lately, additional matters such as UN resolutions concerning other sanctions, arms embargoes, and so on. If the Iranians conclude that the United States really wants an agreement more than they do, and that the presidential threat to use force in extremis is hollow, delay and prevarication are useful for drawing more concessions out of the United States. So it’s interesting: We think time works against the Iranians because it limits their program and puts off serious sanctions relief, and they think it works for them because it delivers more U.S. concessions. We don’t risk Iranian progress toward breakout capacity because their program has been limited, and they don’t risk getting bombed so long as they’re still at or near the negotiating table, or perhaps even if they’re not.
This ensemble of perceptions could mean that a lot more time will pass without much of anything happening. Now that the whole notion of a deadline has been discounted, neither side can credibly use a new hard deadline as a benchmark against which to “walk.” Churchill famously said that jaw-jaw was better than war-war, but that was before Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot.
Just how long could these negotiations go on? That depends on the larger concerns both leaderships have, and here we enter a domain beyond the four corners of any prospective document. It is a domain that is, if anything, even harder to nail down with precision.
What is the Iranian leadership really thinking here? Well, we don’t exactly know. When Khamenei has alternatively spoken as though he were ready to walk away unless this or unless that, but that he supported his brave and faithful negotiators, giving them cover from on high, which Khamenei were we supposed to credit? Was he just posturing to arm his negotiators in pursuit of new P5+1 concessions, or did he actually mean what he said? We still don’t know.
One of the truly irritating side effects of protracted negotiations like these is that it forces members of the punditocracy to repeat the same points over and over again in hopes someone will finally listen. There has always been, in my view, a significant chance that Khamenei could not take “yes” for an answer on a big deal that truly limited Iranian options, no matter how sweet the “yes” seemed to be. Why? Because hating America is part of the Mullahcracy’s raison d’etre. It is what enables the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) to command the sanctioned economy and hence fund and enrich its members. The IRGC reportedly owns about three-quarters of Teheran real estate, a phenomenon redolent of the modus operandi of “security mafias” in places like Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Algeria, and Burma—to mention only a few examples. The Qods Brigades, the IRGC’s military arm, trumps the Iranian military itself when it comes to resources and political access. If Khamenei makes a “big deal” with the Americans, he basically screws the regime’s own Praetorian guard.
There is more. The Iranian population is young and does not like its leaders. It boasts one of the most pro-American populations in this western part of our galaxy. The leadership, fearing the longer-term power of this large generational cohort, has relaxed or simply has been unable to enforce many social rules laid down in earlier years of the Islamic republic—whether these concern alcohol consumption, unmarried couples living together, how women dress in public and what sporting events they go to, and so on. But expectations have continued to rise and the regime is running out of wiggle room. Things are sketchy enough right now, but there is no serious political opposition; a “big deal” with the Americans is very likely to be taken by a lot of Iranians as a signal of regime relaxations across the board. This Khamenei cannot afford, because no one can say where it would end. So if there ever is a “big deal”, expect a very harsh crackdown on a range of behaviors the mullahs do not like. The basij will go wild bashing heads. If you think the regime violates human rights (as we understand them) now—and of course it does—just wait.
And there is even more. What would as much as $150 billion in unfrozen assets pouring into Iran do to that economy and society? One has to wonder if the mullahs understand the real reason the Shah fell. The Shah was a victim of his own success, and that of his father before him. The White Revolution basically worked. The clergy was dispossessed of its vast land holdings, along with significant land reform. Women were given the right to vote, an episode, in 1964, that catalyzed Ruhollah Khomeini’s first arrest. But when the money rushed in after the doubling of oil prices in 1974—a development that the Shah himself engineered more than any Arabs—it spawned massive corruption and social dislocation. Iran experienced a sudden overdose of Schumpeterean “creative destruction”, and one of the victims in the path of destruction was the regime, when the political system couldn’t or didn’t keep up with the pace of social change. If Khamenei understood this, the last thing he would want is $150 billion rushing into the arms of a pent-up, socially explosive Iranian political economy.
In short, there are very good reasons outside the four corners of a prospective deal for the Iranian leadership to walk away. I still think that’s the most likely outcome, despite the fact that most experienced observers, a lot of them far wiser than me, disagree. Maybe they are right, because what Iranian leaders would get from a “big deal” isn’t insignificant. That would include the tacit but still very loud blessing of the United States on Iran’s becoming a threshold nuclear power. That is no small symbol. They would get a lot of money, and they would be fully open for business—not that the sanctions regime has not been quite leaky anyway, especially lately. They may think that they would become more popular among younger cohorts, siphoning off discontent with largesse. And perhaps above all, they would be consummate wedge drivers, giving their Sunni Arab adversaries multiple laundry problems. Certainly there would be money aplenty left over to feed the Assad regime, Hizballah, the Houthis, Shi‘a cells in Bahrain, and so on. At the very least, even if the Iranians did no more mischief than they are already doing, they would confirm the worst fears of America’s longstanding Arab allies, and Israel too: The Americans don’t care about you and won’t come to your aid if you get in trouble.
There is a case to be made that the Iranians are acting foolishly in the region, that they are overextending themselves in a dangerous way, lured by Arab weakness and religious fantasies of the return of the Mahdi. Using Shi‘a militias to contain or defeat ISIS will never work; it’s more like fanning an already red-hot fire. ISIS poses a vastly more serious threat to Iran than it does to virtually any other country.
And there are, again in my view, real limits to how strong Iran can ever be in the Arab world. There are anti-Shi‘a antibodies aplenty, and there are even more anti-Persian antibodies. We are not going to see a re-run of the Achaemenid, Sassanid, or Safavid empires, even despite the advanced level of dysfunction and institutional decay in an Arab world that today is just waiting to be plundered. The Iranians can raise hell and cause a lot of trouble temporarily, but chances are they will exhaust and deplete themselves trying to do more than reality will allow. But if, as an ego-wounded civilization, they think otherwise, let the Iranians screw the pooch on their own.
I don’t know how the Iranian leadership sees all of these issues and problems. I don’t know for sure if, in the inner sanctum, there is realistic debate about these things. I do know that religion-addled fantasist leaderships are capable of making historic blunders.
So much for the Iranians. What is President Obama et al. thinking? It would be nice to actually know the answer, and a lot of observers think they do. But to me what’s going on in the presidential mind is almost as mysterious as what’s going on in Ayatollah Khamenei’s mind.
Now, let us dismiss out of hand the favorite conspiracy theories of the “birthers” and other American fantasists. No, the President is not a secret Muslim. No, the President is not an anti-Semite. No, the President is not secretly helping Iran get the bomb, because that would cut the Israelis down to size and enable Iran to police the region on our behalf. People who believe and say such things no doubt believe and say lots of other nutcase things, too. So what?
No, the real mystery—to me at least—is how (or if, and the extent to which) the President thinks strategically about the region, and its relationship to the rest of the world. If the President has, and has long had, a genuine strategy—revisionist and close-held in character, but real and consistent all the same—that’s one thing. But if instead he has merely nursed certain impulses and convictions, but has never really melded them all into an overarching policy architecture, that’s something else again. If the former, there is a template that drives decisions downward. If the latter, then this way-too-White-House-centric foreign policy is basically a fire brigade, reacting to crises seen more or less as one-offs, with dots connected only episodically between the parts. Or maybe, as time has passed, we have something in between.
Why is this relevant to the Iran negotiations? Because if the President’s foreign policy is strategic, coherent, and top-down in nature, then a normalization with Iran, midwifed by a nuclear agreement, probably plays a very large role in his thinking, and could explain why he wants a deal almost at any price. So, anyway, some very serious Obama critics argue. If, on the other hand, the President does not connect lots of dots, then these negotiations, while undeniably important, do not necessarily make or break the larger policy as a whole, such as it is. We can still “pivot” to Asia with or without an Iran deal. We can operate policy with respect to Europe, Ukraine, and Russia with or without a deal. We can double down on Israeli-Palestinian peace process talks with or without a deal, and so on. So which is it?
If there is a coherent strategy, what does it look like? Well, in brief, it goes something like this, according to the common anti-Obama hymnal. The President thinks that the United States is overcommitted as a result of Cold War habit, and that we are neither necessary to nor can afford the world-order-provider role we have been playing since World War II. Big countries oppose us, in part, because we have allies whom they don’t like. So if we just back off, put more blue sky between ourselves and our allies, and generously “engage” our adversaries, we’ll be able to work out new arrangements that stabilize various regions and, cumulatively, the world as a whole. That will free up a lot of money for the necessary “nation-building at home,” which, in the President’s mind, includes some fairly vast big-government redistribution schemes in search of historic social justice.
When it comes to the Middle East, this means that alliances inherited from the Cold War era are not seen as assets or vital interests, but impediments to a safer and more cost-effective foreign policy. It means that if we stop pandering to Saudis and Israelis, the Iranians will stop worrying about American-sponsored regime change and make deals with us, since they’ll see much less of a need for a nuclear deterrent to fob off U.S. expeditionary campaigns. That said, apocalyptical terrorism and WMD proliferation are serious problems—and the conjoining of the two especially so. These are America’s only really vital interests in the region in the post-Cold War era. So if a deal with Iran can head off these threats, then almost any set of concessions is worth making to achieve that. The President and other Administration spokesmen have said many times that the worst possible future for the region is a mousetrap-proliferation scenario, the seed for which would be an Iranian breakout. They are not believers in “living with” an Iranian nuclear capability via deterrence, and that, it has to be said, is a major point to their credit. Prevent that capability from coming into being, and everything else will be less-than-vital as a threat.
Never mind for the moment that the way the Administration has pursued this goal—by delinking Iranian regional behavior from the nuclear talks and seeming almost to relish pissing off the Israelis and the Saudis—has by now made the mousetrap-proliferation scenario much more likely, whatever happens around the negotiating table. At issue here is not the ambient effects of this strategy, but whether it actually exists.
It’s not hard to find evidence for the view that it does. One can go through the President’s speeches and find all sorts of hints about Cold-War legacy obligations that are obsolete, about the desirability of engaging adversaries from a position of strength, and so forth. One can argue that the Administration’s passivity in the Syrian crisis is tied to an unwillingness to irritate Iran. The case can be, or can be made to seem, quite strong. But is it right?
When I ask people who have worked in the Obama White House, fairly high in the NSC structure, they all say the same thing: crisis management, one-offs mainly, no coherent top-down strategy. If there is someone with a full-bore strategic mindset, however impoverished, it’s not the President, it’s Ben Rhodes, the Deputy NSC Advisor and former chief speechwriter. But unless one assumes that Rhodes is actually running U.S. foreign policy for Barack Obama, and thus giving us in essence Lee Hamilton’s foreign policy, the not-exactly-a-strategy option wins in my mind. That doesn’t mean there is no sub-strategy regarding Iran: I think there is, and it’s based on the aforementioned view that Iranian nukes need to be prevented, one way or another, not deterred.
I suppose maybe, when all is said and done, when all the memoirs are written and the FRUS is opened up, we’ll know the answer to the strategy question. But right now we don’t really know for sure, and we need to take into consideration that intellectuals have a tendency to see coherence and tight, right-angled patterns where they don’t actually exist.
So how is all this going to turn out? Will there be a big deal, if not next week than next month or in the autumn? Nobody really knows. Is the President prepared to give away the store because he thinks no set of concessions can really undermine our ultimate trump: force if need be? Would he actually use force if the Iranians rushed to the goal line before he leaves the White House in January 2017? And perhaps more important, do the Iranians believe he would? Nobody really knows. Would dumping $150 billion into the Iranian economy be a boon for anti-Sunni destabilization, or would it lure Iran into disastrous overextension? Nobody really knows. Could we, in due course, use military force to throw back the problem several years if we have to, and would that be the best of all options at the time? We could, sure, but no one can possibly see that far ahead to know whether it would be the best option. Would Israel act before us, if its leaders doubted our verve? Could be, but no one knows that for sure either.
Dear readers, there are a lot of people out there who claim to know the unknowable, understand the contingent, and be able to read the minds of people like Khamenei and Obama. I am not one of them. I wish I were half as certain about anything as many people claim to be absolutely certain about everything. Oh, these damned negotiations: What a long, strange trip it’s been.