As was pointed out shortly after the lapse of the framework deadline, no immediate consequences had been put in place for a failure to conclude this round of talks ahead of the deadline, so negotiators on all sides have effectively been free to ignore it and continue the talks without actually announcing an extension to the missed deadline.
Hot Air comments on this situation by saying that the open-ended continuation of the talks signifies American deference to Iranian demands in these talks, in the sense that the Obama administration does not consider walking away to be an option. Hot Air speculates that Secretary of State Kerry would continue talks for not just days but weeks if Iran indicated that that was what was required. And this may not be a far-fetched scenario, since Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly rejected the notion of a framework deadline.
This is only one of several points of contention that Khamenei has personally helped to keep alive as the talks approached and then missed their deadline. On Wednesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran released a brief intelligence report detailing commands and restrictions that the supreme leader had handed down to President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shortly before the current round of talks.
According to the report, Khamenei was the point of origin for recent, widely reported escalations in Iranian demands including the refusal to send stockpiles of enriched uranium abroad and insistence on continuing to run at centrifuges as the bombing-resistance underground facility at Fordow. He also urged negotiators to insist upon the immediate lifting of all economic sanctions – a point that Zarif has been stressing greatly in negotiations.
On Wednesday, The Tower reported that Zarif had made it clear that this point is absolute when he declared on video that there would be no agreement as long as any pressure was still being exerted upon the Islamic Republic by Western powers. This and other examples of Iranian intransigence led former Israeli ambassador Daniel Ayalon to declare in an interview with Lou Dobbs on Fox Business that Iran ultimately wants a deal that “won’t be enforceable.”
This also is supported by the NCRI report, which indicates that Khamanei used his meeting with Rouhani and Zarif to express confidence that Iran would suffer no serious consequences if it reneged on its agreements.
The US’s apparent failure to outline potential consequences has been a subject of criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the negotiations. The Tower points out that former Obama administration adviser Dennis Ross had raises exactly this issue in a recent analysis of the US president’s strategy. Ross first emphasized that the focus of that strategy had dramatically changed over the life of the negotiations, moving from a goal of fundamentally transforming the Iranian regime’s nuclear efforts to merely managing its pursuit of a nuclear weapon in order to keep the regime a year or more away from the bomb at any given time.
But Ross even gives the administration the benefit of the doubt by suggesting that a bad deal may be the best outcome that is realistically attainable at this point. Yet he still criticizes that administration for the lack of defined consequences, as these consequences are made even more important by the more limited terms of the agreement that is now taking shape.
“If we are to deter Iranian violations, they must know in advance what the consequences are and that they will be high,” Ross wrote.
An historical analysis posted by Reuters on Wednesday suggested much the same thing, looking at the inconsistent success of US responses to pursuit of nuclear weapons by rogue regimes in the past. In those instances, the options available to the US had always been understood to involve incentives, soft pressure, and direct action inclusive of threats and actual military operations.
Reuters points to the persistent dispute over sanctions, in which the US and its allies continue to push for a situation in which that soft pressure is merely suspended temporarily, so that it can snap back into place in the event of Iranian cheating. The article suggests that it is possible but by no means certain that this would be sufficient to constrain Iranian cheating. As such it points out that policymakers will have to carefully consider whether the threat posed by potential nuclear breakout is serious enough to warrant considering military action against Iran.
There is little doubt that some opponents of the Iranian regime, especially including the government of Israel, would say that it is. Israel, of course, considers Iran to be an existential threat, owing to anti-Israeli rhetoric of many Iranian officials, plus Iran’s well-known support for terrorist groups that count Israel high among their targets.
This was reinforced on Wednesday when, in one of the relatively few Iran-related stories not dealing with the nuclear talks, Arutz Sheva noted that Iran had been smuggling advanced missile systems to the Hezbollah paramilitary in Lebanon, quickly improving Hezbollah’s weapons from being accurate to within a few kilometers to being accurate to within a few meters. Certainly, this is cause for alarm among the many critics and commentators who have expressed fear that even if Iran did not use a domestically-made nuclear weapon on its own, the possibility would remain of that weapon being delivered into the hands of non-state actors.
Such critics also fear that a nuclear weapon would give Iran a major source of cover as it pursued a growing policy of regional dominance – a policy that has prompted Arab countries to take up arms against the Iran-backed militias in Yemen that ousted President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi from office earlier this year.
The Tower on Wednesday detailed some of the anxiety and fear that has been expressed by Arab powers in reaction to the apparent US pursuit of rapprochement with Iran. Those powers appear to be increasingly willing to organize against Iran on their own on the understanding that the current US government has little intention of doing so and is not consulting with its traditional regional allies regarding strategies toward the Islamic Republic.
The Tower adds that this situation reflects wildly different understandings of Iranian regional ambitions. It quotes Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer as saying, “The U.S. does indeed appear to have adopted a strategy rooted in illusion,” namely the illusion that Iran could be satisfied with limited regional gains that fall short of establishing Iranian hegemony.
The Arab powers quite disregard this perception, as does much of the US Congress and some European powers. And their more skeptical outlook on Iran naturally leads to a more skeptical outlook on the nuclear talks. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported that European Union counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove had told the European Parliament on Tuesday that he believed Iran’s financial enrichment following a conciliatory nuclear agreement could lead directly to an increase in proxy wars in the region.
It is these broader Iranian activities as well as the regime’s nuclear program that the US Congress hopes to constrain by exerting its influence over the nuclear negotiations or by imposing sanctions on Iran for failing to conclude the talks or abide by its commitments. Indeed, Congress is certain to take one of these two actions, according to McClatchy.
There is bipartisan support for a bill to require congressional approval of a deal, and also for a bill to impose new, punishing sanctions. Action will likely be taken on the former if negotiators claim to reach a framework agreement, but on the latter if talks break down or remain stalled at this point.
Neither action has been taken in response to the two-day delay for one simple reason: Congress is currently on a two-week recess, which gives the Obama administration several days’ leeway to try to finalize the framework agreement before Congress is in a position to step in and declare that it has run out of patience.
Still, the Associated Press indicates that the forthcoming role of Congress is part of the administration’s calculus, as it is unclear how far congressional Democrats’ patience extends – something that affects how far he can push these negotiations as he struggles to manage a dilemma that pits the desire for a specific foreign policy legacy against the fear of losing legitimacy by antagonizing both parties in Congress.
The delicacy of that dilemma contributes to the US delegation maintaining a fairly neutral narrative about the talks, stating that progress is being made and that negotiations will continue until that is no longer the case, although there are still gaps to be bridged.
Each other delegation appears to have established its own narrative, in keeping with its own interests. Apparently trying to rush a framework agreement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, an Iran ally, declared early Wednesday that the parties had arrived at an understanding on all major points.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond had made the more measured but still optimistic statement that a “broad framework of understanding” had been established. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, known for having the most demanding position against Iran, left the talks and returned to Paris early Wednesday, recognizing that an immediate deal was unattainable and declaring that he would return when doing so appeared useful