Anatomy of a Deal with Iran

Iran is but a particular manifestation of a larger problem. We will see this movie again.

The on-again, off-again musings about a deal between Washington and Tehran are on again. A deal might reconcile the most important demands of each side: Iran’s insistence that it has a legal right to an independent fuel cycle for what it insists is a nonmilitary nuclear program and the declaration of the United States that Iran must not be permitted to build nuclear weapons. The latest round of speculation follows recent press reports that the two parties have agreed to hold bilateral negotiations following the U.S. presidential elections.

Yet soon after the news broke, both sides weighed in with their own spin. The White House, while reiterating that it has always been open to direct talks, insisted that there has been no formal agreement to hold them. Was this clarification meant to ensure that the American pubic received an accurate account? Was the denial of a formal agreement, preceded as it was by what appears to have been a leak about possible talks between Tehran and Washington, meant to prevent rising expectations that could then be dashed, making the Obama administration look feckless? Or was it, given that Election Day is nigh, designed to show that the administration is making progress on a diplomatic solution but to do in a way that would provide parry charges by Mitt Romney that Obama is rushing toward talks that would allow Iran time to build nuclear arms? There is no clear answer.

Iran quickly dismissed the reports about impending one-on-one talks. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi insisted that Iran was engaged in negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1 but that it was not conducting talks with the United States. This was a tad ambiguous: given his choice of words, Salehi did not deny that Iran had broached the idea of talks or that it had responded positively after the United States had done so.

Is Iran trying to prove that the economic sanctions and the resulting tumble in the rial’s value have not forced it to change course and deal directly with the United States in hopes of relief? Is Salehi’s denial just a tactic designed to allow Tehran to negotiate with Washington eventually but without seeming desperate in the run-up to talks? Is it meant to calm Iranian hard-liners, ever vigilant for indications that the regime is yielding to pressure? Is it a sign that, despite the power attributed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there is no consensus within Iran’s leadership about how to cope with the pressures created by the sanctions? (The rial has lost some 40 percent of its value, Iran has lost half the revenue it gets from oil sale and ordinary Iranians are facing rising prices for basic goods.) Again, this remains unclear.

It does appear that Iran is not about to change its stance on enrichment because of the sanctions’ bite. At the same time, as the West becomes convinced that the sanctions have hurt Iran, President Obama can insist that the economic pressure is working. This in turn makes Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument—that time is running out and that a military strike may be the only solution—less persuasive and takes pressure off Tehran.

Iran’s leaders don’t like being squeezed by sanctions, but they prefer that to being attacked by the United States and Israel. In the meantime, Tehran will take steps to reduce the pain sanctions have brought to Iranian citizens (chiefly in the form of higher prices for goods that are imported or contain material that is) while simultaneously dealing harshly with protests to prevent economic dissatisfaction from producing mass demonstrations that could snowball and imperil the regime. Securing the state is the Iranian leaders’ most important goal.

Domestic Considerations

Though Tehran is not blasé about a military strike, it understands that Americans have just wound up one long war in Iraq, are still extricating themselves from another in Afghanistan and are not eager to start a new one, no matter their apprehension about a nuclear-armed Iran. Mitt Romney also understands the public’s mood. That is why he (like President Obama) has said that he will not permit Iran to build nuclear weapons but has not explained how his approach differs from the president’s.

Obama and a substantial portion of the attentive American public understand that a military strike could fail to destroy all of Iran’s nuclear installations. They know that Iran can retaliate by deepening its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, thus making the civil war there even bloodier and more dangerous. They realize that one consequence of that would be to make the already-evident spillover effects of Syria’s violence into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan even more pernicious. And they understand that that’s just some of what Iran could do in response to an attack.

Those who say these are just trade-offs ought not to be in positions of authority. Leadership requires foresight, in this instance the capacity to figure out how the consequences of a major decision will be handled and at what cost. Thankfully, those who condemn the administration’s approach as pusillanimous (and apparently favor a military response) have failed to sway public opinion, as shown a 2012 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.