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.
Some of the carrots Iran is offering the West are also not as tasty as they may appear. Sure, Iran’s proxy militias have been some of the most effective forces in the fight against the Islamic State. But they are fighting to defend Shia and Iranian interests, not to win Washington’s favor. Tehran is, to an extent, asking Washington to pay it to do what it was going to do anyway. The value of these militias is also limited. There is still little trust between Iran and the United States on security matters, from the tactical level (questions like “Can we share intelligence with you?”) to the strategic level (questions like “Are our interests in the Middle East generally aligned?”). That puts a damper on cooperation. So does the militias’ brutal, hypersectarian conduct, which will not be helpful in prying Iraqi Sunnis away from the Islamic State. And while America despises Daesh, it certainly should not regard a Levant filled with Iranian toadies as a wonderful alternative.
Another error in Iran’s approach: America’s sticks are not as fragile as Tehran might think. The U.S. financial system sits at the center of the global economy, which gives Washington a tremendous unilateral sanctions power. Add in a few allies—Britain, the rest of the EU—and a history of big fines for sanctions violators (French bank BNP Paribas agreed to pay nearly $9 billion in a settlement earlier this year over sanctions offenses), and the cost of doing business with Iran remains very high. Those who observe sanctions enforcement closely have even cast doubt on the viability of major Iranian-Russian cooperation against the sanctions, as the U.S. sanctions on Russia are much looser than those on Iran.
Finally, the Obama administration knows that making a deal with Iran will not be a huge domestic victory. Quite the opposite: it’s sure to touch off a major struggle with Congress, which will not like any presently plausible deal and which may seek to force Obama to reimpose sanctions. The president will have to use his executive authority to provide Iran relief from sanctions, while the sanctions laws remain on the books. A senior official told the New York Times’ David E. Sanger that “we wouldn’t seek congressional legislation in any comprehensive agreement for years.” A breakdown in talks with Iran wouldn’t have much immediate domestic cost for the administration—in fact, the main domestic worry would be the potentially high price of switching to a more confrontational path, which could end in a major war.
Of course, as much as the failure of talks would hurt Iran, it would hardly be cost-free for the United States, too. At a minimum, the sanctions do have a price for ordinary Americans, as they suppress and divert business that could have come our way. The National Iranian American Council, a group that opposes broad sanctions on Iran, has estimated that foregone exports to Iran cost the United States as much as $175 billion from 1995 to 2012, and that that money could have supported an additional 50,000-65,000 American jobs per year. Iran’s oil industry has also been stunted by the sanctions regime; the oil it could have produced would have stabilized the international oil market, leading to lower gas prices.
But the real price of failed talks for America would be international. So far, the sanctioning coalition has held together and even played a good-cop-bad-cop game of its own, with France sometimes playing the bad cop. But what if the breakdown were seen as Washington’s fault? The sanctions regime comes at a price for our allies; while they wouldn’t likely help Iran run around the sanctions, they’ll grumble more. Worst of all, a renewed face-off with Iran is at odds with America’s global goals. We are already on a path of confrontation with both Russia and China. This puts our armed forces and our national security establishment under strain. Having another regional power on our enemies list only increases that strain—and gives our challengers stronger incentives to work together against us. A nuclear deal won’t turn Iran into an ally, but it will help America direct its energy toward stronger challengers.
Maloney remains correct that the greater price of failure will be borne by Iran. If they have, as she suggests, mistaken a successful public-relations campaign for a successful diplomatic strategy, they may be on the verge of blowing it.
John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.