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Barack Obama seems poised this week to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear-weapons program in talks that resume Wednesday. Negotiations came unstuck this month in Geneva either because France felt the terms too favorable to Iran, because Iran refused to compromise its “right” to enrich uranium, or both. The outcome embarrassed President Obama and fortified Tehran’s view that he is desperate for a deal on almost any basis.
Secretary of State John Kerry has spared no effort to avoid another Geneva debacle, almost certainly making more concessions to Iran to secure agreement. The failed deal was certainly wretched from America’s perspective, involving countless problems and deficiencies. This week’s deal will be worse.
It is no answer that Obama is seeking merely an “interim” understanding with Iran. “Interim” concessions have a way of getting locked-in, as seemingly ad hoc trade-offs freeze into permanence. Indeed, Obama’s “step-by-step” approach itself tells Tehran’s mullahs how desperately Obama wants a deal, and how willingly he ignores the reality that Iran’s nuclear program has never been peaceful.
But there is a larger point here, beyond whatever specific terms emerge this week in Geneva. The West’s efforts to negotiate with Iran are doomed to failure because the parties’ objectives are utterly incompatible. A decade of abortive negotiations alone demonstrates this basic truth, which Iran’s ongoing diplomatic “charm offensive” cannot obscure.
Obama sees negotiations as deflecting the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. Iran sees them, by contrast, as helping ensure success for that very weapons program. There is simply no compromise between these objectives. There are no “bridging proposals” that can overcome irreconcilable differences.
Tehran’s primary negotiation objective is to eliminate the threat of military strikes against its nuclear program. Despite Obama’s rhetoric that “all options are on the table,” no one believes he will use force. And who knows what private assurances Obama or Kerry have already given the ayatollahs (a fruitful area for congressional inquiry)? That leaves Israel, which the Obama administration is pressuring unmercifully, not just on Iran but also on the Palestinians. In Israel before his Geneva embarrassment, Kerry squeezed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make more concessions to the Palestinians, implicitly green-lighting both a third intifada and continuing European efforts to delegitimize Israel in their absence. This pressure on Netanyahu, already back-breaking in Obama’s first term, is now at unprecedented levels. That means Iran is very close to its goal of neutralizing Israel.
Iran also wants relief from economic sanctions. And why not, given the economic harm they are causing? Remember, however, the mullahs are not US consumers. Threatened with a diminished lifestyle, too many Americans would concede almost anything. Not so the Islamic revolution. Tehran understands that securing even modest sanctions relief in Geneva will carry it over a critical inflection point. Instead of slowly increasing in severity, the sanctions will have decreased. To exploit Obama’s (and Europe’s) palpable diplomatic weakness, Iran will make superficial concessions, like those reported in leaks about this month’s aborted deal. President Hassan Rouhani employed precisely this strategy 10 years ago as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, making purely cosmetic, tactical concessions. He is using the same playbook today.
Iran knows that under existing US law, India, China and others themselves face sanctions unless they continue to reduce their imports of Iranian oil. Obama fears either having to sanction such important countries or granting them further waivers, thus undoubtedly triggering vociferous domestic political criticism that he can hardly now afford. Moreover, Iran will have won an enormous psychological victory in Beijing, New Delhi and other important capitals, which will realize that the diaphanous sanctions regime is near total collapse.
US sanctions advocates also need to acknowledge reality. Even if their policy could work to stop Iran’s nuclear efforts (which it can’t), hard-headed strategists are not administering America’s sanctions. Barack Obama is. Any policy that rests on Obama taking a tough negotiating position with Iran is doomed to failure, given his desperation for a deal, his naïveté and incompetence and his basic operating premise: He fears an Israeli military strike more than an Iran with nuclear weapons.
That is why evaluating the terms of the upcoming interim deal — who scored on this issue, who scored on that — is beside the point. The negotiation process itself buys Iran both time to continue its nuclear-weapons activities and international legitimacy. Kerry and others, even at this supposedly interim stage, are already speculating openly about ultimately normalizing relations between Washington and Tehran. This tells the ayatollahs everything they need to know.
Consider one historical analogy. In 1938, Germany wanted the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. It would either get the territory or not. There was no compromise position. Ask Neville Chamberlain how that worked out.
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