Is Iran About to Blow It?

Tehran has won the PR battle in the nuclear talks, argues a new report, but that won't lead to negotiating-table victories.

Iran’s negotiators have successfully framed these final days of the nuclear talks on their terms—and that might lull them into making big mistakes. That’s Brookings Iran watcher Suzanne Maloney’s argument in a deep analysis of Iranian tactics ahead of the November 24 expiration of the interim agreement. Tehran, she says, is taking four steps to strengthen its hand.

First, it’s using “the divisions within its ruling system” to play “an elaborate game of good-cop-bad-cop.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regular pronouncements about what the final deal must allow foster a perception that he is reining in his negotiators and insisting on a tougher position, particularly on Iran’s enrichment capacity; the negotiators can then go to their counterparts and claim their hands are tied. However, Maloney writes, “there is no hard evidence that absent the Supreme Leader's public rhetoric, Iran's position on enrichment was particularly flexible.” Rouhani and Zarif, she says, have both made statements of their own about preserving enrichment capacity and mitigating international worries with measures in other areas.

Second, Iran is promoting itself as a bulwark against the marauding Islamic State, one whose “assistance...can be bought” at the nuclear negotiating table. This, Maloney suggests, may explain the increased visibility of powerful IRGC Qods Force commander Ghassem Soleimani on the frontlines in Iraq—appearing in “battlefield selfies,” to use her term. Is Iran showing off its wares?

Third, Iran has sought to “depict [its] rehabilitation as a fait accompli,” with the nuclear deal a minor obstacle standing in the way of an Islamic Republican triumph. “Rouhani and company have sought to persuade the world that the era of Iranian isolation has now passed,” writes Maloney, “...and that business as usual can resume immediately.” In this vein, there have been waves of exploratory talks between Iranian and European commercial interests.

Finally, Iran has intensified efforts to cast the United States as the main obstacle to the talks. And if the talks fail, a perception that Washington is at fault will, Maloney says, “facilitate Iran’s acknowledged Plan B—an end-run around sanctions and an attempted breakout of the economic pressure and international isolation that helped generate the conditions for constructive negotiations in the first place.”

Maloney suggests the Iranians have been successful in spreading these narratives, and this had benefited them: “By sticking to its guns, Tehran has gone from supplicant to sought-after in the talks, with Washington and its allies scrambling to devise formulas that might meet the supreme leader’s imperious mandates.” However, she warns, on closer examination it becomes clear that Iran’s approach is “a dangerous bluff, and one that will ultimately fail.” The Iranians are wrong, Maloney says, to think that America will back down on enrichment—Washington “has already extended major concessions,” and a “deal that fails to redress the [nuclear weapons] breakout timeline would gainsay a decade of efforts to deter Iran from nuclear weapons capability.” They’re also wrong to think that the Obama administration is “desperate for a foreign policy victory,” “feeble” or otherwise willing to cave in at the last minute. This mistake might lead the Iranians to err dangerously, warns Maloney: “The cost of another failure is high, and the durability of the multilateral sanctions regime and the long reach of U.S. unilateral measures means that it will be paid entirely by the Iranian people.”

Maloney’s quite right. To go further, Rouhani and Zarif are very heavily invested in the outcome of the talks, and would likely pay a serious political price if they fail—indeed, they’ll come under attack at home even if they successfully create the perception that the failure is the West’s fault, as hardline figures and the Supreme Leader himself have been warning that the United States cannot be trusted and will be able argue that the Rouhani team impetuously ignored their counsel. With the economic benefits of a deal no longer forthcoming, the Iranian public might also begin to question the administration’s mixed economic record.