A Nuke Deal Too Big to Fail

Five reasons a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is coming soon -- whether you like it or not.

P5+1 and Iran representative pose prior to the announcement of an agreement on Iran nuclear talks on April 2, 2015 at the The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne. Iran and world powers said they had reached agreement on Thursday on "key parameters" of a potentially historic deal aimed at preventing Tehran from building the bomb. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 2, Iranian diplomats and representatives of six world powers reached a framework for a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program. And Wednesday, April 22, the talks resumed with the aim of reaching a firm and final agreement by June 30. That seems like a lot of time to scuttle such a contentious subject. Think that the mullahs will overplay their hand and sink the nuclear deal? Hoping that President Barack Obama’s administration will toughen up and fight for a bargain Tehran can’t accept? Wishing that Congress will play spoiler in the eleventh hour?

Don’t hold your breath. The gods of negotiation have spoken and have bestowed their blessings on the interim framework agreement — and what will come after it. The sun, moon, and stars are now aligning in favor of an accord (especially one favorable to the Iranians). Here’s why:

The closed circle. I know from experience as an advisor to Republican and Democratic administrations on Israeli-Palestinian talks that negotiators tend to fall in love with their negotiations, particularly when they convince themselves that what’s at stake is a matter of peace or war — and even more so when they believe they’ve exhausted every other possible alternative. Negotiators defend their handiwork with a determination that can also smack of arrogance and condescension. After all, they’re in the room; you’re not. They purport to know and have access to 100 percent of the information; and, of course, you don’t. They’re the guardians of the national interest; not you.

As a result, negotiators often become believers with a powerful faith grounded in a sense of mission: This is the best deal possible, and the alternatives are profoundly worse. Anyone who challenges this mantra either just doesn’t get it or has a hidden agenda. Like priests of some high temple, negotiators have seen the inner sanctum — the late-night or all-night negotiating sessions, the crises and the breakthroughs.

And this is precisely what’s happening now to U.S. negotiators. They were there in Lausanne when they and their Iranian interlocutors reached an interim agreement and even mapped out, against the odds, a blueprint for a final deal. The negotiators want to protect their achievement. The greater the pressure from the outside (see: Congress, Israel, and Saudi Arabia), the greater the need to circle the wagons.

Led by irrepressible Secretary of State John Kerry, this team is on a mission. If there is a way to finesse tough issues, find fixes with the Iranians, and overcome gaps, they will. The danger, of course, is that in the desire to close, the negotiators will pay too great a price in an effort to meet the other side’s needs. The U.S. president, with his emphasis on enforcement rather than sequencing of sanctions, is already on something of a slippery slope. The path is set for the kind of creative solutions that can easily favor the Iranians.

The president really wants this. It certainly helps the U.S. negotiators if the American supreme leader has their back. And he most certainly does. Obama — the negotiator in chief — has decided to invest his personal credibility and his administration’s in an enterprise he thinks will define his legacy. With most other foreign-policy issues headed south or out of reach — Israeli-Palestinian peace, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reset with Russia — the Iran deal is one of the last remaining legacy issues available to Obama, a way for his administration to fashion some measure of order and rationality in an irrational and chaotic region. Part of how the administration plans to stabilize the Middle East involves an expanded (even oversized) role for Iran.

Moreover, Obama is determined to defend the nuclear deal as he has no other issue since Obamacare. It was no coincidence that Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor who knows the boss’s foreign-policy mind as well as anyone, once compared the Iran deal to the Affordable Care Act in terms of magnitude as a policymaking achievement. The president has willfully and uncharacteristically stood up to Israel and Congress. And even though he agreed not to veto the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, that’s a tactical battlefield adjustment in a war he intends to win. Rarely has a president been as active in personally hawking any issue as Obama has in recent weeks on the Iran deal. If I were sitting in Tehran watching the president’s defense, I’d reach the obvious conclusion that Washington wants to make this work. And that might lead me to believe that I can ask for more.

Iran really wants this too. OK, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei isn’t selling the framework accord with nearly the enthusiasm of Obama. Khamenei knows better than to double down on a deal that’s far from done, especially one that depends on the Americans and their funny, strange politics. He also must know that he will not likely be around a decade from now. Khamenei — only the second supreme leader since Iran’s 1979 revolution — wants to ensure that any deal protects his own legacy as much as Iran’s nuclear interests. Obama may not want to be the first U.S. president to allow Iran to go nuclear on his watch; Khamenei doesn’t want to be the first Iranian leader to give up Iran’s nuclear weapons options.

If the supreme leader believed the process was heading in that direction, he might have shut it down. But he’s trapped by the process too. Iran has made concessions to get this far and to manage the expectations of a public that has dangerously high hopes for what a deal will bring. And there’s much in the deal for the mullahs. Iran has played the nuclear card well without abandoning it. If things go as planned, Iran will get sanctions relief without actually shuttering any nuclear facilities. It will be left not only with a large nuclear infrastructure, but money in the coffers to pursue its regional ambitions (see: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) without abandoning its weapons-of-mass-destruction aspirations should Iran choose to pursue them. Tehran’s negotiating strategy is a strategic decision based on the assumption that the passage of time and loss of interest will make it harder for the West to reimpose the sanctions regime than it will be for Iran to reconnect its centrifuges. Barring some egregious disconnect in the negotiations, Tehran will push forward toward a final deal.

Israel is sidelined. The Israelis really never had a chance to derail the deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have considered military action against Iran, as he’s reported to have done many times in the past couple of years, but that’s no longer possible. If the Israelis bombed Iran while a final nuclear agreement were in reach, it would create a crisis far worse than had they launched a preemptive strike when there was no chance of a deal. Just think how the Obama administration and the Western world would react. Now that Senate Democrats and Republicans have cut their own deal (to provide some measure of congressional review for the nuclear agreement), Israel has been co-opted by its own allies. The chances of Israel’s acting independently to scuttle the agreement are slim to none. Right now, it looks like Netanyahu will have to learn to live with a final agreement whether he likes it or not.

Congress probably won’t actually try to sink the deal. Last week’s Corker-Cardin compromise has offered Congress a way into the nuclear deal, which is what legislators have been demanding for months. The bill suggests that Congress is looking for a way to keep its oar in the water without having to assume responsibility for steering the whole ship.

Unless the final accord agreed to by June 30 is a fire sale in which the administration gives just about everything away, few in Congress will want to be seen responsible for the consequences of scuttling a deal, which could include the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program and maybe even war. Two recent polls — by the Pew Research Center and Washington Post-ABC News — found that most Americans favor negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue, though they are skeptical it will stop Iran’s search for a weapon. And if worse really comes to worst and there’s a real fight between the administration and Congress, the president will be able to sustain a veto override by marshaling just 34 Senate Democrats.

* * *

It’s certainly possible that some sticking point or change of heart on the Iranian side could still blow up the negotiations. And it’s a long way to June 30. But on balance there’s a pretty good chance that an agreement is going to emerge. Few thought that an interim agreement would be reached. Most believed that if something did come about it would be a very bad bargain. That proved incorrect. In fact, most honest observers were surprised by the level of detail that came out of Lausanne. So don’t throw good money after bad. What’s done is done: A nuclear agreement is coming.


Aaron David​ Miller is a geoeconomic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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