Commentators See Nuclear Deal as Likely, but Still Weak

 

The prospect of meeting the self-imposed deadline remains unlikely by most accounts, but on Friday some reports and editorials expressed the view that notwithstanding the persistent disputes, an agreement of some sort is likely. Reuters pointed out, for instance, that the official line among most participants in the negotiations remains that the chances of a deal are about 50-50. But the news agency adds that some officials see an agreement as more likely than the collapse of the talks.

Reuters notes that at least one Western official attributed this perception to the fact that both of the major players – Iran and the United States – desperately need a deal. Various Western analysts, especially those critical of the Obama administration, have asserted that the US president has invested much of his foreign policy legacy in the nuclear deal and thus cannot walk away now. Much the same claim has been made of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose change of Iranian strategy toward the West stands to lose legitimacy if the talks fall apart.

The more salient issue for the Islamic Republic of Iran, however, is the promise of large-scale relief from the economic sanctions that crippled its economy and by most accounts forced it to the negotiating table. Yet the country has already received billions of dollars in unfrozen assets in exchange for merely keeping the talks going. What’s more, analysts have expressed concern that the appearance of rapprochement is encouraging some international businesses to throw their weight behind the further opening of the Iranian market, regardless of what happens in the talks.

An editorial published in Al Arabiya on Friday agrees that the talks are likely to result in a deal at some point past the deadline, but it also acknowledges the possibility of failure. However, the author, Majid Rafizadeh, suggests that if this happens the two nations will go into a situation of “contended standoff,” essentially informally maintaining the circumstances that emerged with the signing of the interim agreement in November 2013. In that case, Iran would retain the benefits that it has already accrued and would not be subject to any new economic sanctions or other pressures.

The likelihood of this outcome may however depend on the response by the US Congress to the breakdown of the talks. Lawmakers already considered legislation to outline new sanctions that would be immediately imposed on Iran in the event of no agreement. But this bill did not go forward after Democrats agreed to give the president a wide berth for completing the talks before any aggressive action was taken. Nevertheless, both parties in Congress remain much more skeptical of Iran than is the Obama administration. And this has been reflected in a great deal of the commentary that emerged this week.

In the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin lauded a speech given by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday. In it, he responded critically to Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest apparent concessions to the Iranian regime. Kerry stated this week that Iran would no longer be expected to come clean on the past military dimensions of its nuclear program. Menendez pointed out that in addition to reversing a previous US negotiating position, this statement contradicts statements by the International Atomic Energy Agency indicating that it cannot say with certainty how far Iran is from a nuclear weapon unless there is a full account of its past work.

Kerry’s new stated position may also contradict the findings of the very department that he heads. Politico reported on Friday that the State Department had released its latest report on global terrorism, which addressed concerns from several rogue states and acknowledged a special interest in Iran. The report refers to Iran’s support and financing of various religious fundamentalist proxies as well as its expansion of global influence as far away as Latin America.

But especially noteworthy in light of the nuclear negotiations, the report indicates that the State Department continues to recognize Iran as a proliferation concern. This reflects the writings of various analysts who worry that a weak nuclear deal could set off an arms race throughout the Middle East. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has publicly declared its intention to start its own nuclear programs if it is not satisfied that Iran’s nuclear development has been sufficiently curtailed.

Whereas Friday’s Reuters report claimed that a nuclear deal was likely, its explanation of that conclusion is at least partly questionable. The report stated that there were “signs of compromise,” but it cited as an example Western officials’ claims that Iran had accepted an inspections regime that includes IAEA access to Iranian military sites. As Reuters itself notes, Tehran has publicly, loudly, and repeatedly rejected this provision.

Kerry’s concession on past military dimensions fueled speculation this week that the administration may also give up ground on its verification demands. So far this has not been the case, as indicated by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s comments on Friday’s PBS Newshour. Moniz insisted that full verification remained a prerequisite for any nuclear deal, and that this would have to include inspection of sites that might be part of Iran’s covert pathways to a bomb.

Still, criticism runs high alleging that the Obama administration is giving too much credit to the Iranian regime in terms of the likelihood of real compromise. In an editorial published Friday by the Los Angeles Times, Israeli Member of Parliament and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren suggested that Obama’s dealings with Iran are likely based on a false premise and that they have adverse effects on the negotiations in either case. Oren pointed to the fundamentalist ideology of the Iranian regime in order to conclude that it is not a rational actor and may thus continue to pursue nuclear weapons even against its own self-interest.

But Oren went on to say that even if Iran can be trusted to make rational decisions in the nuclear negotiations, the volume of American concessions gives Tehran no real reason to compromise. That is, if Iran shares the perception of certain Western officials that President Obama desperately needs a nuclear deal, Tehran’s “long-term cooperation is not really necessary” as long as the talks are either in no real danger of falling apart or have already provided Iran with sufficient sanctions relief for its survival.