This was not a good week for President Barack Obama’s Iran policy.
Reports of a French fact-sheet that differed from a US government-issued statement suggested that there are no fewer than four different official versions circulating as to what was agreed to in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2nd, and that there are key differences between the US, Iranian, French, and EU-Iranian documents.
On April 7th, Obama told NPR that the time Iran would need to construct a nuclear weapon would substantially shrink in year 13 of a final nuclear agreement, an admission that administration spokespeople then struggled to walk back.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the likely top Senate democrat after the impending retirement of Harry Reid, came out in support of a bill that would give a sceptical and Republican-controlled Congress enhanced oversight over the rollback of sanctions under a final agreement.
And on April 9th, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei derided many of the central aspects of the Lausanne announcement without explicitly coming out against it.
There’s no agreement as to what was really agreed to in Switzerland, while Schumer’s criticism raises the possibility of significant Democratic party opposition to a deal that even Obama admits would leave Iran in a position to quickly assemble a nuclear warhead.
It’s the last of these setbacks that’s the most significant, and that exposes an asymmetry that could prove fatal to Obama’s highest foreign policy priority.
Obama and Khamenei’s goals in the nuclear negotiations may be irreconcilable.
Obama views detente with Iran as a legacy item, and wants to affect a shift in US policy that would be a Middle Eastern version of the Nixon administration’s China thaw. As an anonymous administration official put it to Politico, a deal with Iran would be a “game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord.”
Khamenei does not view the nuclear negotiations in the same light. He probably doesn’t see rapprochement with a country that he frequently refers to as the “great Satan” as a desirable objective unto itself, never mind an initiative on which to hang his legacy as Supreme Leader.
“For Obama and Kerry, detente with Iran would be a proud part of their legacy. Khamenei on the other hand has prided himself on defiance of the US,” Karim Sadjapour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Center for International Peace, told Business Insider.
Sadjapour adds that Khamenei’s statements over his 26 years as Supreme Leader have remained remarkably consistent: He sees the US as an implacable national enemy, and cares more about preserving the ideological and institutional pillars of the revolutionary regime above all else.
Sadjapour said that the technical details of a final agreement matter far less to Khamenei than these bigger-picture issues.
“I don’t think Khamenei is crunching numbers and thinking to himself, OK we can live with an 11 month breakout capacity but not a 13 month breakout,” says Sadjapour. “This is less about nukes and more about domestic political calculations. How does he best ensure his own political survival and that of the regime?”
It’s simplistic to reduce the negotiating dynamic to Obama “wanting” a deal more than Iran does. Iran certainly wants to lift sanctions and to have the international community affirm its rights as a uranium-enriching, industrial-scale nuclear power. It could accomplish both through an agreement.
Rather, the Obama administration’s goals in the negotiations are broadly strategic. And those goals can only be satisfied if Iran desires a similar shift in orientation — or at least enough of one to get Tehran to relax its demands for immediate sanctions relief, the barring of nuclear inspectors from military sites, and unfettered nuclear research and development.
Obama wants an end to the US’s confrontational relationship with Iran. But Khamenei wants a diplomatic victory on Iran’s own terms.
Those terms are flexible — but only to a point. If “victory” as the Iranians define it isn’t attainable at the negotiating table, the regime will simply walk away from the negotiating process without a final deal, as the Supreme Leader suggested it might during his April 9th speech.
Sadjapour says that Khamenei has shown some flexibility around the nuclear issue thus far, but not to a point that proves the Supreme Leader is undergoing a change in worldview. “The Islamic Republic’s economic challenge has forced him to reassess his longtime calculations,” Sadjapour says. “The question is whether he’s contemplating merely a short-term tactical compromise, or a more profound strategic shift.”
Khamenei could eventually reach the conclusion that the regime’s long-term survival actually is served by entering into an agreement with the US and its partners. He may also decide that even a deal on somewhat favourable terms for the US could be spun as a victory for the regime. Further US concessions could also alter his thinking. The asymmetry between Obama and Khamenei’s motivations and goals doesn’t doom the negotiating process.
But it could make things more complicated from the US’s perspective.
There’s a lot of ambiguity as to what the sides actually agreed to in Lausanne. With the Supreme Leader taking such a critical position, Iranian negotiators have an even stronger incentive to exploit that vagueness for their benefit, rather than finding a diplomatic middle-ground: “When it comes to negotiating the remaining discrepancies to finalise the deal, I would anticipate Iran driving a hard bargain, believing that America wants this deal more than they do,” says Sadjapour.
And the US will be hesitant to walk away from the talks for reasons that go beyond Obama’s desire for a “legacy-setting” diplomatic breakthrough.
The talks’ collapse would throw a wrench into Obama’s implementation of an Iran strategy that goes beyond just repairing ties and getting past the nuclear issue: People briefed on a October 2014 letter from Obama to Khamenei told the Wall Street Journal that Obama “described a shared interest in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria” and “sought to assuage Iran’s concerns about the future of its close ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”
A senior congressional staffer who spoke to Business Insider thinks that the asymmetry between all sides may only cause the US’s negotiating position to erode even further.
The source said that he or she had no knowledge of any single agreement actually being signed in Lausanne (but added that it’s at least possible that there were secret annexes to the Lausanne announcement that the administration won’t disclose).
“On many key issues they have agreed to disagree but claim to the world that they have agreed,” the source said. “It’s very clear that the administration at the highest level wants something no matter what it is.”
And if Khamenei’s position doesn’t soften in the coming months, that could mean more big concessions from the US side — or that there won’t be a deal at all.
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