Iranian Nuclear Deal Down to the Wire Again

Just as in previous cycles of negotiations between the P5 + 1 (Security Council permanent members U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, and France, plus Germany) and Iran, the parties are butting up against another deadline. It's November 24 this time around, and many issues remain.

Should the parties not reach an agreement, it is all but certain that the talks will be extended for another six- or twelve-month period rather than break down. Just as with the 21-year “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians, no one is willing to accept that failure is not only an option, but reality.

The major difference between the Israeli-Palestinian track and the nuclear negotiations is that Israel is not a party to the nuclear talks. The nation most impacted by Iran becoming a nuclear power has to rely on other nations to represent its interests by preventing that from occurring. The danger is that an agreement that Israel considers an imbalanced and dangerous deal might be eagerly signed by an American government now anxious for some positive foreign policy achievement. The Obama administration has a very long losing streak both domestically and overseas, which now includes a second wipeout in a midterm election.

Obama has, throughout his six years in office, eagerly sought to change the American relationship with Iran, and for that matter, with Israel: one up, one down. At this point, Iran is cooperating with the U.S. in the fight with ISIS in Iraq and -- to a lesser extent -- in Syria (where the U.S. is less involved). Both parties seem eager to achieve stabilization in Iraq in particular. If that goal is achieved, Iran will have secured one more nation for its growing collection of Shiite-friendly regimes to add to Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. If ISIS is defeated in Iraq, then it will also be easier for Iranian proxy armies, such as Hezbollah and its own militias, to concentrate on wiping them out in Syria. Then Iran could get back to its primary interest: leading and supporting the fight against Israel.

The cooperation on the battlefield in Iraq is clearly connected to the nuclear negotiations with Iran.  Iran is happy to cooperate with the United States when it serves its own interests. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei learned this week that nothing he says or does, no matter how vile, will deter the P5 + 1 -- and, it seems, the Americans in particular -- from moving ahead. Khamenei recently called for the annihilation of Israel (even laying out nine points for discussion!). Also, his government funded the terrorist group responsible for the savage slaughter in a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday morning.

Analysts such as Michael Ledeen have argued a nuclear deal will not occur because it is impossible for the ayatollahs to accept a deal with a country they have demonized for 35 years. They are not interested in an Obama-in-Tehran signing ceremony. But it is also possible that the genocidal language about Israel and the continued verbal attacks on the United States are window dressing to protect the revolutionary flank, while a deal the Iranians seek (in particular, sanctions relief in exchange for their feeble promises to curtail their nuclear program) is forthcoming.

Israel’s strongest backers in Congress, most of the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and the principal lobbying group for Israel, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), have offered guidelines for judging whether a deal with Iran is acceptable. In a short video prepared by AIPAC, the group outlines six questions relating to any final nuclear deal with the Iranians:

  1. Will Iran dismantle its centrifuges, now approximately 20,000 in number?
  2. Will Iran dismantle its heavy water reactor in Arak?
  3. Will international nuclear inspectors get access to all the sites in the country they want to visit on short notice?
  4. Will Iran explain aspects of its nuclear program that are linked to a weaponization program?
  5. Will the United States and the rest of the P5 + 1 agree to only gradually reduce existing sanctions on Iran, to match evidence of Iranian compliance with the agreement they have signed?
  6. Will Iran and the P5 + 1 only sign a long term agreement (decades, rather than years), so that Iran does not obtain sanctions relief, and then move towards a nuclear weapons capability when it decides to do so?

The short answers, of course: no, no, no, no, no, no. In fact, the existing interim agreement and the negotiations to date involve a collection of concessions to Iran which make the questions largely irrelevant.

In October, veteran U.S. diplomat and former Senior Director for the Central Region at the National Security Council Dennis Ross elaborated on those concessions:

[The P5+1 negotiators already agreed] to allow Iran to avoid suspending uranium enrichment, despite UN Security Council resolutions mandating it do so; accepting that Iran should be treated like any other NPT signatory after the full implementation of the comprehensive agreement despite its past transgressions; acquiescing to Iran’s insistence that it not acknowledge that it pursued a nuclear weapons program; not including the Iranian ballistic missile program in the proposed comprehensive agreement; accepting Iranian arguments against converting its Arak facility to a light water reactor and shutting down the Fordow facility; and accommodating the Iranian insistence on not dismantling centrifuges (instead, they would perhaps reduce output, disconnect the pipes, and be flexible on how many centrifuges might ultimately still operate).

In short, the U.S. goal appears to be to “freeze” the Iranian activities at today’s level. They are not looking for any “dismantlement” or “rolling back.”

Exactly how the pro-Israel community responds to a deal they don’t like is not entirely clear, especially regarding when it occurs. When Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Illinois Senator Mark Kirk attempted to pass new sanctions legislation a year ago that would kick in if Iran broke any nuclear agreement, Obama -- through his loyal lackey Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- applied so much pressure on Democratic senators that the effort was stalled at 59 votes, one short of breaking a filibuster. That effort is worth remembering the next time anyone tries to defend Reid’s alleged pro-Israel credentials, which disappeared under White House pressure.

Kirk and Menendez are likely to try again, and in the next Senate they will have a far more receptive group, with 53 or 54 Republicans. Given the president’s unique ability to diminish the size of the Democrats’ congressional delegation (since he took office, House Democrats lost 71 seats, and probably 14 Democratic senators with Mary Landrieu losing), the Kirk-Menendez effort may not only get to 60, but possibly to a veto proof two-thirds in both the Senate and House. They could pull back some of the existing waivers to sanctions that provide the president great discretion on sanctions relief.

In addition to the Kirk-Menendez sanctions legislation, there may be an attempt to force a consideration of any agreement as a treaty, requiring a two-thirds vote in the Senate. The president has already made clear that he will not bring this nuclear agreement to the Senate, bypassing Congress as irrelevant once again (Obamacare changes, immigration changes, etc.).

The president is not without his backers. When it comes to the Iranian nuclear deal, there are pro-Iran groups that have been active for years, plus Obama’s Jewish blocking back -- J Street -- which adopts every Obama initiative with regard to Israel as its own (especially pressuring Israel on the Palestinian track). J Street is pushing against any opposition to the deal (without even knowing its final terms), and against any new sanctions fallback if Iran fails to comply.

J Street argues that new sanctions, even discussion of new sanctions, would send the wrong signal and possibly kill the deal, giving Iran an excuse to withdraw from talks. The Iranians, of course, are free to label their negotiating partners as the Great Satan and to call for the destruction of Israel, which they actively support in deeds as well as words with their backing of Hamas and Hezbollah, among other terrorist groups. But according to J Street, we need to be conscious of delicate  Iranian sensitivities at this time.

Secretary of State John Kerry was unusually harsh in his criticism of Palestinian Authority incitement after the Jerusalem synagogue attack. Whether that new attitude will carry over to the nuclear negotiations remains to be seen, though I doubt it will. Failure on that front is not an option. At worst, it must be deferred for another six or twelve months.