Iran is playing the long game in negotiations over its nuclear program. And it may have already boxed in U.S. President Barack Obama, with help from an increasingly tumultuous state of world affairs.
Iran and six world powers officially agreed on Friday to extend negotiations for at least another four months. Iran has agreed to dilute additional stocks of nuclear material, in exchange for access to nearly $US3 billion in assets that have been frozen in the U.S.
Some American officials are sceptical that even a four-month extension in talks will be enough to resolve some of the major sticking points among negotiators. And the reality is that as time goes on, the West will continue to lose leverage as Iran’s economy slowly crawls toward a recovery with limited sanctions relief.
“The extension was expected because Iranian nuclear intransigence is being further emboldened by the reality that Western negotiating leverage is diminishing,” Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.
Dubowitz helped write a report detailing how Iran’s economy has rebounded — and sanctions pressure has subsided — by recent U.S. moves.
“The Obama administration’s mid-2013 decision to de-escalate the sanctions pressure, and the direct relief offered at Geneva, have sparked a modest albeit fragile Iranian economic recovery and increased the economy’s resilience to sanctions pressure,” Dubowitz told BI. “Tehran may believe that it can sustain these negotiations for many months if not years, provide only limited and reversible nuclear concessions, while extracting additional direct sanctions relief and solidifying its economic recovery.”
Dubowitz says that if Tehran’s bet turned out to be true, then the nuclear concessions would continue to swing Iran’s way.
“Then the Obama administration is left doing more of what it has done already — namely, defining downwards its nuclear demands until Iran’s leaders have deal terms that give them an industrial-size nuclear capacity, relative immunity from any new sanctions, and the essential elements they need to build nuclear weapons at a time of their choosing,” he said.
Furthermore, there are now a number of regional issues that potentially play to Iran’s advantage in negotiating power, including the deterioration of the situation in Iraq with the advances by extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
“The Iranian government knows that Iraq is a significant problem for the United States, that it puts further strain on an already damaged relationship with the Saudis, and that desire to get a deal done for the White House — already having invested significant effort on a win — has gone up,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said in a research note last week.
“They know that failed negotiations after all the effort will be seen as a significant loss for the Obama administration, and that maintaining tough sanctions given challenges with Russia and even parts of continental Europe will be more difficult.”
The other geopolitical variable that could affect the Iranian nuclear negotiations is the crisis in Ukraine, which has escalated significantly this week after the shooting down of a civilian aircraft, likely by pro-Russian separatists with arms supplied by the Russian Federation.
Russia is a key partner of the West in any Iran deal and keeping negotiations on a steady path, and yet it is the driver of disaster in Ukraine. Relations with the U.S. have reached their worst levels since the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin could play spoiler in any Iranian deal by forging an oil-for-goods exchange deal, thereby reducing even more pressure on Iran.
The Iranian nuclear negotiations have already given Iran an opening to act on priorities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. And as long the Middle East remains in flames while a permanent nuclear deal is being haggled, the influence of the Iran Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) will grow.
“Nuclear diplomacy has made the Obama administration even more reluctant to push back against Iranian influence for fear that this will compromise any nuclear deal,” Dubowitz told BI.
“It has even sparked delusional recommendations from Washington’s commentariat that the U.S. and Iran have common interests. The result of this will be an even more dangerous Iran which will use any nuclear deal to diminish its diplomatic isolation, restore its economy, and supercharge its regional influence at significant cost to U.S. interests.”
And what if a comprehensive deal can’t be reached? Dubowitz noted that “he is deeply sceptical that the Obama administration will be willing to walk away from the negotiations if a good deal is not possible.”
If the U.S. does decide to walk away, Obama would have to scrap his plan to open up Iran.
“If there is no good deal to be had … then the president will have to deliver on his commitment that he will massively enhance the economic pressure and that all options including military force will be considered,” Dubowitz said.
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