How to Make This Iran Talks Extension the Last One

We can't even deal. Time to use Congress to play good cop, bad cop.

The cocktail talk in Washington has long been that the Obama administration would be foolish to extend the nuclear talks with Iran. Congress, ran the argument, would never stand for it, and the administration would never chance it. And so the doves stood for making a deal by Monday’s deadline, and of course no later, and the hawks stood for stronger demands and stronger sanctions that would violate the negotiating framework and thus render the deadline it set moot. Yet as the deadline drew closer, positions shifted. All sides confronted the cold reality that a breakdown in the talks would risk a return to the sharp confrontations of 2012 and earlier, when the unrestrained growth of Iran’s uranium stockpiles steadily increased the risk of war. This being a bad time for a war—well, for yet another war—a breakdown was quite unattractive; with no deal readily available, extension was the only path forward. And so some in hawkish circles began endorsing an extension (which they’d warned against) of the negotiating framework (which they’d also warned against) over ending talks altogether or rushing to sign whatever deal was available. The cocktail talk has proven soggy.

But now everybody’s asking a similar question: Will we extend the talks again? Could this go on forever? One Iranian cartoonist suggested as much, depicting an elderly Catherine Ashton and a frail Javad Zarif still talking; a memorial to John Kerry sits on a chair behind the two.

The root of the endless talks fear is in an unpleasant divergence between the strategic and tactical levels of the talks. Strategically, both sides find the current situation better than a breakdown, so they have reason to extend. Yet tactically, both sides know that expressing eagerness for an extension leaves them vulnerable both at the negotiating table and at home. The other party to the talks will see extension fever as a sign that you’re afraid to walk away and that you don’t believe your options in the breakdown can get the job done; they can then demand more of you. Your domestic rivals will say much the same thing; those eager for a tougher line will fear they’re being strung along. With a Republican majority sitting down in the Senate on January 3, the administration is making a big gamble. John Kerry’s announced intention to reach a “political agreement” in four months, and to “revisit how we then want to choose to proceed” at that point if there’s no deal and no clear way forward is a conciliatory gesture in their direction.

It’s hardly clear that Congress will respect that timeline. Some representatives are calling for breaking off the talks and imposing new sanctions. But their dominance isn’t certain. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair-in-waiting Bob Corker has proven adept at moderating the tougher voices in his party, and any new sanctions bill would need to win significant Democratic support in order to overrule a presidential veto. The hardliners have headwinds to contend with. But those winds will weaken as time marches on.

The prudent thing for the Obama administration to do here would be to reach out to the hawks immediately. (Does Tom Cotton have an encrypted phone line in Dardanelle?) They need to discreetly lay out a good-cop, bad-cop plan for the coming months of talks. The administration will keep negotiating in earnest; the hawks will take their time drafting a tough new sanctions bill, periodically leaking gruesome new details. The administration will talk about how its hands are tied, how it can’t keep these maniacs under control forever, how even the Democrats will start to bolt as the duck lames. And the hawks will bide their time, crafting a bill that can get that veto-proof majority: in other words, a credible threat.

This hasn’t worked in the past, in great part because the hawks’ tacit offer to Iran had been a demand for surrender: give up your nuclear program entirely while making major changes in both your foreign policy (stop backing terrorists, be nice to Israel) and your domestic policy (respect human rights). Iran would not accept this offer—and, in its complex political system, they most likely could not, given all the potential spoilers who could fight it. This made the negotiations more difficult: why listen to your promises, Mr. Kerry, when your Congress says it’ll shred them?

But now there are signs that a good-cop, bad-cop strategy may be possible. The hawks have become more disciplined. As Monday’s deadline approached, the impossible demands began to fade. The incoming Republican senators, in a joint statement, called for Iran to “at a minimum...allow for the comprehensive inspection of suspected nuclear development sites and comply with the United Nations’ previously enacted limitations on their nuclear program.” That’s within the universe of the agreed negotiating framework. That “minimum” was couched among a lot of stronger language, so it’s not the only direction the new senators can go. But if the party’s leaders can solidify plausible positions like these, the hawks will enhance American credibility in the talks, rather than detracting from it as they did in the past.

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