The Fantasy of the Deal
Everyone's an Iran expert, as you may have noticed. Everyone has an opinion about what sort of deal is being concocted between us and the Iranian regime, with pundits, experts, reporters, and pols weighing in on epiphenomena ranging from the number of Iranian centrifuges that will be allowed to how quickly or slowly the remaining sanctions will be lifted.
Here in Washington the "inside story" that has been circulating for more than a week is: the deal is all done and it will be announced before the 24th, the nominal deadline for the negotiations on a "permanent" agreement.
I've been here since 1977, approaching forty years, and "inside stories" have been wrong...almost always. Say 80-90 percent of the time. That's because the "information" is circulated to advance or sabotage policies or individuals, not to inform. So I don't pay much attention to such stories.
I try to reason from first principles or known facts. It's not as sexy as passing on "what the insiders are saying," but it has a somewhat better track record. Yeah, most forecasts, even those based on known facts and first principles, are wrong, but they aren't THAT wrong, if you see what I mean. And when it comes to Iran, there's always a considerable amount that we don't know and aren't going to know, so it's best to be tentative.
But we do know some things, and there is an historical record that is pretty consistent, so let's go with that stuff.
--We know that Obama badly wants a deal, most any deal that will get him on board Air Force One for a spectacular arrival in Tehran and an embrace with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His Inner Nixon dream. He's prepared to make all manner of concessions to stage that scene. So we pretty much know "our side" of this melodrama;
--On the other hand, we also know that Khamenei does NOT want a deal with the Great Satan, and he has no interest in securing Obama's legend. He is sick, he may well believe that he has limited time left on this earth, and he doesn't want his legacy to read: he came to terms with Satan;
--So why would Khamenei make a deal? Answer: he'd make one that plainly humiliated the United States. And what does that look like? Answer: sanctions get nullified, he keeps his nuclear program, and Obama doesn't get a visa to Iran;
--Can (even) Obama agree to that? I reckon the Brits and Germans might (they don't like sanctions, which they are eagerly avoiding anyway, and they probably have convinced themselves that Iranian nukes would be used against Israel, which they wouldn't mind all that much). Would the French? I don't know. And I have my doubts whether (even) Obama would sign it, with a blazing firestorm now kindling on Capitol Hill.
Which takes us to the history: both Clinton and Bush (yes THAT Bush, W) believed they had reached a deal with the Iranians. But just before the document was to be signed, Khamenei nixed it. Condoleezza Rice was so sure it was about to happen (she'd just issued 300 visas for other Iranians to accompany Ali Larijani to the UN for the happy event) that she flew to New York to greet the Iranian delegation. But Larijani's plane never left the tarmac in Tehran.
The pattern, then, is that they negotiate and eventually agree to a deal, more or less the same deal (Iran stops making nukes and we lift sanctions). One little technicality remains: the supreme leader has to initial all the pages.
But he doesn't. And why should he behave differently this time around? Sanctions are crumbling anyway, and he's got his nuclear program running along. Nothing happens when he tells the UN inspectors to go away without conducting their inspections. And he doesn't think Obama will ever do anything seriously mean to him or his country.
That's why I think a deal is unlikely. The best outcome for Khamenei is more of what he's got already: more talk, fewer sanctions, nuclear progress, humiliation of the Great Satan.
Don't you think he can get that?