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The U.S. Doesn’t Have a Backup Plan for Negotiations with Iran

The U.S. Doesn’t Have a Backup Plan for Negotiations with Iran

Barring a surprise last-minute breakthrough, it looks like the June 30 deadline for the negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program will pass without a deal. At least that is how things appear on the afternoon of deadline day.

Several scenarios are still plausible, however.

Perhaps most probable is that the deadline will pass and negotiations will continue as if the deadline did not really matter. The Obama administration as good as said that they no longer consider June 30 to be a real deadline. In truth, it was always an arbitrary date, as were most other deadlines in the decade-long negotiations. The new “deadline” of July 9 (which the administration is re-designating as July 7 so as to give some more wiggle room) is a bit less arbitrary, as it is pegged to a threshold in U.S. law. A deal reached after July 9 would be subject to a 60-day congressional review, whereas a deal reached before July 9 would only be subject to a 30-day congressional review. Thirty congressional-days is not much of a grim trigger, but it ain’t nothing. So it is the new “deadline.”

It is also plausible that in the next couple days some sort of “deal” that the Obama administration is willing to live with is reached. We know that the administration really, really wants a deal. They want a deal so much that they have repeatedly made additional concessions to keep the negotiations going. (For a painful read documenting the retreat based only on the administration’s own words, read this, and realize that this document is only based on statements in the past couple years; the retreat would be dramatically greater if the baseline were the negotiating terms the Obama team envisaged at the start of their term, or the ones outlined at the outset of negotiations back in 2005).

The most likely scenario, in other words, is some variant of the one that we have seen play out repeatedly in the last several years: some mix of additional U.S. concessions and continued negotiations.

Some other outcomes do not seem to be plausible.

There is no chance that the administration will secure a deal that would have been considered a good one several years ago. We have long since left the zone of “good deals” and are in the zone of choosing between bad and worse agreements. The best that we can hope for is an agreement that does not retreat too much from the talking points the administration touted at the passing of the last deadline. However, even ardent supporters of the administration concede that negotiations seem on track to produce, at best, a more marked retreat from the talking points, which is why they have urged the administration to keep negotiating regardless of deadlines.

There also appears to be essentially no chance that Iran will pay a price in the form of additional sanctions or other punishment for continuing to defy the international community. The Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to talk down any such punishment — especially military punishment, which, despite the odd (and increasingly rare) ritualistic incantation of “nothing is off the table,” is quite clearly off the table for the duration of the Obama tenure.

I cannot recall another high-profile negotiation where one side, in this case our side, went to such great lengths to make it clear that they viewed the prospect of “no deal” to be entirely unacceptable and so have done no preparation for that scenario — at least no preparation that is both evident and likely to be consequential.

When administration officials talk about “no deal,” they describe that scenario in terms that make it clear they think it is worse than “any deal.” They do not discuss any provisions for ratcheting up pressure, even though they claim that pressure was what got them this far. On the contrary, they claim that sanctions will fall apart in the absence of a deal. What they do not explain is, if that is true, why Iran would make any concession in order to get sanctions lifted?

Given Obama’s curious approach to the negotiations, the least-worst outcome that could plausibly be achieved could well be continued negotiations.

I hope the administration proves me wrong. I hope the administration finds a way to salvage prospects for a better deal by developing and communicating a viable plan for walking away from a bad deal. I am not sure I have enough hope in me to wish that Iran would surprise everyone by making genuine concessions in the absence of any additional pressure (or threatened pressure), but why not? I hope that, too.

As the tired cliché goes, “hope is not a strategy,” yet what other strategy has the administration articulated regarding the endgame of the nuclear negotiations with Iran?

CARLOS BARRIA/AFP/Getty Images