Take One for Tehran

Why President Obama needs to stand up to the warmongers who want to kill the Iranian nuclear deal.

By , a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

July 20 is drop-dead day for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. On Jan. 20, diplomats gave themselves six months to reach an agreement to bring Iran into compliance with the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Barring an eleventh-hour miracle, negotiators in Vienna will not finalize a deal, and instead will have to agree to an extension, perhaps for another six months. As that moment approaches, President Barack Obama will be the target of howls of outrage from Congress, the Israel lobby, Israel itself, and Saudi Arabia — all of whom have been pushing the United States into confrontation with Iran.

He must tell them — politely, of course — to go to hell.

After years of inaction and thunderous polemic, the negotiations of the past year have been remarkably professional. A report by the Arms Control Association lists 31 obligations that Iran undertook when it signed the so-called Joint Plan of Action; all but two are completed or in full compliance. Critically, Iran has agreed to stop enriching uranium at 20 percent, to dilute its existing stock of highly enriched uranium, and to allow regular inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The West, for its part, has made good on its promises of sanctions relief. 

That said, the two sides are still very far apart. Iran continues to insist that it needs far more than its current stock of 19,000 centrifuges to produce enough fuel for a peaceful nuclear program; the West says that it needs far fewer. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, sending a shot across the bow of his own diplomats, declared earlier this week that Iran would need 190,000 centrifuges for its program. The West has demanded that Iran dismantle the reactor at Arak, which produces plutonium that could be used for a bomb, and the giant underground enrichment facility at Fordow. Iran has steadfastly refused to dismantle anything it has built. That’s why there’s virtually no prospect of a deal by next week.

Yet despite the rhetoric, the Iranians have at times sought pragmatic solutions. "The word of the week is ‘creativity,’" one member of the Western "P5+1" negotiating team now in Vienna tells me. "There are places where Iran has shown creativity and flexibility in the negotiations — not enough, though." 

A leading Iranian official, for example, has proposed changing the modifications of Arak to produce less plutonium. The Iranians have also spoken of a two-stage process in which they accept what they consider onerous restrictions for a fixed period long enough to satisfy the West — perhaps 10 years — and are then free to act as any other NPT signatory. In what reads very much like an unofficial trial balloon, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator who remains close to officials to Tehran, has outlined how such a deal could work.

There is, in short, a "there" there. But it will be very hard to get there from here.

Earlier this year, President Obama had to personally intervene to prevent Congress from imposing additional sanctions that would apply the second the six-month period lapsed. Now those naysayers, including Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will say "We told you so," and prepare a new round of punishments. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will come under equal pressure from their own hard-liners, including the supreme leader, to show that they have not been gulled by the devious West.

Both sides understand the precariousness of the other’s position. "We’ve had very open discussions about the domestic political pressures," says the P5+1 official. Mousavian said in an email exchange that Tehran will agree to extend the negotiations so long as the P5+1 does not demand additional concessions in order to do so. The Iranians know that the same is probably true of the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry is flying to Vienna this weekend in order to assess whether there’s enough forward progress to justify an extension. In effect, each side needs to be able to reassure its hard-liners that success is possible and thus prevent them from throwing a monkey wrench into the process.

Failure is still as likely as not. Very powerful forces in Iran are ideologically committed to an adversarial relationship with the West; others have earned a fortune in Iran’s isolated economy, and would lose out were the country to open up. Iranian negotiators continue to speak as if both sides must make equal compromises, when in fact the onus is on Tehran to comply with the NPT. Yet the Iranian people elected Rouhani to bring an end to their isolation and deprivation, and he knows — and presumably the supreme leader knows, too — that failure to reach a deal threatens Iran’s future, and perhaps the revolution as well.

For the United States and the West, events in recent months have magnified the importance of what was already a supremely important negotiation. Pillars are collapsing across the Middle East: Sunni extremism is erasing state borders in Iraq and Syria, while the roster of failing or gravely threatened states in the region has swelled to include Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Iran is, of course, a major source of that instability. Yet Tehran is threatened by blowback among its tottering Shiite clients. Iran is a revolutionary state that nevertheless has a stake in regional order, and thus finds its interests converging with Western ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is suddenly looking like a possible cure in some places, even as it remains very much the disease in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. 

The Obama administration has long hoped that a nuclear deal would strengthen moderate forces inside Iran and thus over time change Iranian behavior in the region. Perhaps that’s a pipe dream. But Iran has a large middle class that demands a better life. It has great writers and filmmakers (though ordinary Iranians can’t see much of their work), and is a cosmopolitan nation with a deep sense of its ancient Persian roots. The only time I was in Tehran, a decade ago, I kept finding myself thinking what a great place it would be if only the bearded lunatics who run the country would return to the mosque. It’s clear that many Iranians think so as well.

America’s chief ally in the region, besides Israel, is Saudi Arabia. Though a theocracy like Iran, Saudi Arabia is a status quo power rather than a revolutionary one. America’s Gulf allies keep reminding it that Saudi Arabia is America’s great friend, and Iran its implacable enemy. Yet the Saudis have also set fires in the region through the export of their harsh Wahhabi faith. They are as responsible as Iran is for the sectarian bloodletting that now convulses the Middle East. What’s more, Saudi Arabia is a vastly more reactionary, more self-enclosed society than Iran. Iranian women work; Saudi women can’t even drive. Try making a list of Saudi writers, filmmakers, or intellectuals. Very short thought experiment, no? Here’s another: Try to imagine what Saudi Arabia will look like in 10 or 20 years. Given the rapid growth in population, the declining price of oil, and the country’s extreme social and political rigidity, it may well look like a poorer, shakier, and perhaps much more dangerous version of its current self. 

One can at least imagine an alternate scenario in which Iran looks very much better than it does now, and thus like a far more suitable ally than the Saudis. One can imagine Shiite Iran and Sunni Turkey serving as regional gendarmes over a fractious, largely impoverished Arab world. The West, of course, should do what it can to make that fantasy a little more likely. President Obama can make a start this week by standing up to the warmongers.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.